PEYTON, Colo. – As the Waldo Canyon Fire claimed its first home June 26, 16-year-old Hannah Hildreth watched a drab smoke plume smear across the sky. Her neighborhood swimming pool had closed due to airborne ash laying down and polluting the water.
“Some of my friends were being evacuated and saying how they just wanted to be back home, and breathe fresh air again – and they couldn’t do that,” said Hildreth, who starts 12th grade next month at Sand Creek High School in Falcon School District 49, roughly 15 miles east of the fire.
The wildland fire, burning for its third day, had torched more than 15,000 acres in and west of Colorado Springs, causing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people. It destroyed 347 structures on 34 streets, announced Mayor Steve Bach on June 28, marking it as the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
“We knew it wasn’t going to hit this side of the town, but we just wanted to help out,” said Hildreth, student body president. She met with other student council members to find ways to assist evacuees and their supporting organizations.
After hearing Care and Share, the area’s largest nonprofit hunger relief agency, filled all its volunteer needs, the students decided to create their own support venue. They transformed the Sand Creek High School gymnasium into a community philanthropy hub, calling it “Waldo’s Benefit Bash.”
Spanning across two basketball courts, nearly 50 teenagers from student councils at Sand Creek High School, Vista Ridge High School and Falcon High School setup a dozen games to raise cash donations. They also decorated a table to accept non-perishable items for Care and Share.
“I feel like we’re making a big contribution,” said Hildreth, halfway through the all-day event. From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., more than 150 people arrived to drop off donations, play games and setup additional activities, such as caricaturist and makeup artists.
Kimberly Gearhart, owner of Inflatable Family Entertainment and resident of District 49, donated $1,500 worth of equipment rentals and $250 of supplies, including a bounce house and stands for making cotton candy, snow cones, popcorn, candy art and spin art.
A sound system broadcasted local radio stations, which routinely aired shout outs about Waldo’s Benefit Bash.
“Our community started giving back to us, as we started giving to them,” said Hildreth.
“We know the fire is getting contained now, but its still hitting our district,” she said. “We have a teacher who just came home from vacation and found out his house is gone – all he had was the stuff he took on vacation with him.”
Waldo’s Benefit Bash contained a collection area for the District 49 teacher’s family. The students raised about $1,250 in cash, while gathering piles of donated clothes, household items and toys. His three young girls toured the games and activities alongside a family friend. With colorful whales and butterflies painted on their faces, they picked out their favorite three toys from the donations.
Meanwhile, their parents visited a recovery center and coordinated with their insurance company.The Rottenborns
Jim Rottenborn, a Spanish teacher at Falcon High School, began a month-long vacation June 5, with his wife and their girls, Mary Grace, 5, Lily, 7, and Anna, 10. They left their quiet Mountain Shadows neighborhood and drove around the eastern states, visiting family and friends.
The Rottenborns heard about the wildland fire June 23, while in Ohio. Their house sitter called with a 10-minute window to evacuate. Feeling alarmed and confused, Carrie Rottenborn led her to their insurance documentation, and their daughters’ set of antique rings, a gift from their grandmother.
On her way out, their house sitter scooped roughly 35 pet minnows into a plastic container. The girls had brought the fish home after a science project at Chipeta Elementary School in Colorado Springs School District 11. Carrie Rottenborn said saving the fish was a blessing; Anna was praying they wouldn’t die.
High winds, record heat and extreme dryness fueled the flames June 26, the day they lost their home. The family had recently stopped in Kentucky.“We were watching everything unfold 1,000 miles away,” said Carrie Rottenborn, who continuously searched for updates using online news feeds and Facebook posts. “On our way back to Colorado, we stayed one night in Oklahoma City and visited the memorial for the bombed federal building.
“Oklahoma City helped put things in perspective,” said Carrie Rottenborn. “We had lost something important, but we didn’t lose the most important thing, each other.
“We just need to keep being our own best supporters,” she said, about the family’s future plans. They’re hoping to stay near Mountain Shadows, where people know first-hand the hardships of the fire.
“I feel inspired,” said Carrie Rottenborn, about the District 49 students’ efforts. “Words cannot describe how touched we are – high school kids have a lot going on during the summer. This shows they’re developing into productive members in their communities … they’re caring and selfless.
“You hear plenty of negative press regarding teens, and this proves that wrong. I feel positive about our future.
“Colorado Springs will continue to be a great place to live.”