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Families Fight for Normalcy after Wildfires Destroy Autism School

SONOMA COUNTY (CNN) — For about two weeks, 7-year-old Caden Higuera from Windsor, California, has been cooped up in his house, playing with Legos and patching together 500-piece puzzles.

This isn’t his usual schedule.

He should be at school with his friends and teachers at the Anova Center for Education. But it burned down on October 8 in the wildfires that have been setting Sonoma County and other California regions ablaze for weeks.

“Twelve hours ago this was the Anova school … Now it is a flaming pile of rubble,” Andrew Bailey, the school’s co-founder and CEO said on a Facebook post. “Thank God the kids weren’t there … We will literally rise from the ashes.”

The school changed its mascot from a dragon to a phoenix. “We’re not going anywhere,” Bailey said.

Higuera is living with autism and he needs structure, even more so than other young children.

Because Higuera is off-schedule, “his behavior has gotten worse,” said his mother, Jenny Whalen. “He’s gotten anxious. He’s gotten super hyperactive.”

The Anova Center for Education is the only nonprofit institution in Sonoma County that specializes in providing education and therapy services to youth, ages 5 to 22, living with autism and learning differences. They provide the structure that youth with autism need.

Bailey, who’s a licensed marriage and family therapist and behavior analyst, told CNN that his students are experiencing anxiety and depression. He’s gotten calls from parents saying their children “won’t get out of bed, won’t eat, they pace back and forth talking to themselves, all they want to do is play video games and they’re becoming agitated.”

Whalen said that “a typical kid” could go to day care, be placed in another public school or have a consistent babysitter, while waiting for their school to rebuild. But her son, who’s attended Anova for two years, didn’t do well in public school and can’t be dropped off to be watched for a long time — not even by his grandmother — because of his autism.

“We’re stuck inside the house most of the day because it’s too smoky,” Whalen said. “The air quality is so bad that when you go outside your throat starts hurting and you start coughing. We’ve tried to calm him down by playing puzzles, but he’s not doing well.”

Whalen said Higuera “cried for a while” when she told him what happened to the school. He was concerned that the school’s two service dogs were hurt, until the school’s director sent pictures of the dogs to reassure him.

“He doesn’t really understand the situation,” Whalen said. “I think he thinks he’s on break from school right now and thinks he’s going to go back.”

Tuesday, the school held a meeting for the all staff, parents and students.

“The kids were happy to see each other,” Whalen said. “The consensus is that the parents — at least the ones that I talked to — would’ve rather lost their houses than the school. The school was such a blessing.”

But the school is raising money via GoFundMe to support the nine families that did lose their homes in the fire, Bailey said. The school is also using the money to buy students books and computers. If enough money is raised, they hope to provide structural basics that other public school children have, such as a gym, library, playground, and music and art rooms, Bailey said.

By next year, the Anova Center for Education hopes to have portable classrooms for its students.

For now, the school is looking at using classrooms in surrounding school districts. Several school districts have reached out to them and offered a few of their classrooms, according to Bailey. However, the school will have to split the students up and place them in different locations until they secure a large enough space for everyone.

Students should have a sense of normalcy in these temporary classrooms by October 30, if not before, Bailey said.

Moves toward normalcy

Until then, Anova families like the Duarte family are trying to keep their children busy and provide whatever structure they can.

Taylor Duarte, 9, has attended the Anova Center for Education for two years. His parents, Shannon and Darren Duarte, recently took him to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. They evacuated to San Francisco as a precaution against the Tubbs Fire. Taylor loves science, so his parents hoped their visit to the center would give him a sense of normalcy and distract him from worrying.

When she told Taylor about the fire, he was “very sad and showed an incredible amount of empathy, which is usually hard for autistic kids,” Shannon said. “I didn’t expect that from him.”

“He said, ‘How can I help with the fire? I want to give all of my allowance ($85) and art supplies to Anova,’ ” Shannon relayed. “He misses his friends and wants to help rebuild Anova.”

That money would go toward the $475,000 goal the school is trying to raise.

“We’re hanging in there,” Shannon said.