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Tuition-Free Education: Helping Families Affected by the Camp Fire

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January 31, 2019

Local individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instill a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land.                                                - Pope Francis


In November 2018, the town of Paradise and surrounding areas in Butte County were ravaged by the worst wildfire in state history.  Paradise itself was virtually obliterated and nearly 90 lives were lost in the Camp Fire, one of the nation’s deadliest. 

In the aftermath, families continue to struggle to regain some normalcy in their lives.  This is an exceedingly difficult challenge as many of these families’ homes are destroyed or inaccessible.  Additionally, many schools are gone as well leaving 4,000 displaced students.

To help ease the struggle faced by families with school-age children displaced by the Camp Fire, the Diocese of Sacramento quickly reached out to assist.  Specifically, the Diocese offered open seats in Catholic elementary and high schools in the Northern Sacramento Valley to all students affected by the fire.  While tuition at a diocesan Catholic school normally ranges from $5,000 to $6,000 for the first child, these openings are tuition-free for the remainder of the school year.

As of January 2019, 30 children have enrolled in participating Catholic schools with more expected to be admitted. 

In a November letter announcing the tuition-free program, Lincoln Snyder, Executive Director of Schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, wrote that the Diocese “is heartbroken over the devastation the Camp Fire has caused, and the number of families it has left displaced in its wake ... Many families have lost nearly everything in this fire, and being back in a school can be a major stabilizing force in a child’s life.” 

Snyder has also noted that “the fire and its aftermath offer us valuable lessons about Catholic schools’ role in supporting our communities in times of peril.”  Indeed, the Catholic Church, as a whole, has always sought to provide both material and spiritual support to those suffering from natural disasters. 

Shortly after the Camp Fire broke out, Pope Francis prayed in a special way for victims of the fire and those suffering from extreme cold on the East Coast during the noonday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square: “My special prayer also goes to those affected by the fires that are plaguing California, and to the victims of the frost on the east coast of the United States.  May the Lord receive the dead in His peace, comfort their families and support those who are engaged in rescue efforts.” 

Nine students have now enrolled at Notre Dame School in Chico, located about 15 miles west of Paradise.  Some of these students’ families completely lost their homes in the fire.  Principal Terri Schwabauer expressed that it is, “really gratifying to be able to offer this kind of help to [displaced] families.”  She noted that the students have been welcoming and extremely positive and have helped find clothing for displaced families. 

Similarly, at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Oroville, located about 20 miles from Paradise, four families affected by the Camp Fire have enrolled their children tuition-free for the remainder of the school year.  Principal Kasia Heinert shared touching stories of students asking what they could do to help.  One eighth-grader wanted to personally introduce himself to the new students.  A student in the fifth grade sought the help of her family and friends in southern California resulting in the school receiving gift cards that totaled around $500 to distribute to the displaced families in time for Christmas.  “It’s been heartwarming to watch the kindness and selflessness our students have displayed since this horrific event wreaked havoc on our county,” reflected Heinert.       

For those interested in supporting the Diocese’s effort to provide tuition-free education to families affected by the Camp Fire, the Diocese has created a special Camp Fire Student fund.  Monies collected by the fund will be used to pay for uniforms, school materials, hot lunches, field trips, and other educational expenses.  The diocese also plans on using the donations to assist currently enrolled school families who were affected by the fire and are in need of material and tuition relief.   Donations can be made at  As of the end of December 2018, the fund has collected over $40,000 in grants.


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