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Rebuilding after the Glass Fire: St. Helena school library starts a new chapter

Foothills Elementary School was decimated in the fire just as the school had reopened for in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

ST. HELENA, California — When Holly Racker took over as volunteer librarian for Foothills Adventist Elementary & Preschool in St. Helena 13 years ago, she said the library needed work then, too. 

"I went in there and I saw how outdated everything was," Holly said. "I mean, because it's a volunteer position, basically, they were just expected to check books in and out when the classes came and that was it...but I wanted to have more books."

Nothing in circulation was recent. In 2006, most of the books were from the '70s and earlier. 

Holly says she couldn't help but laugh seeing the 'current' presidents named in the outdated history books the library had to offer when so much more history had passed.

"It wasn't really being used much for a resource, and then the kids would come, but it didn't really seem like they were really making much use of other books," Holly said. 

So Holly began revamping the library practically from scratch while her daughter, Sarah Racker, was in eighth grade. For the last 13 years, she transformed the small space into what a school library should be: welcoming, relevant and resourceful.

Credit: Sarah Racker
Holly Racker reads to some younger students at Foothills Elementary before the pandemic [Faces blurred for privacy]

However, Holly has to build the library up again, this time from ash. 

Foothills Elementary burned down as the Glass Fire raged through the community in St. Helena. The library and all its resources are gone.

"It was just so heart-wrenching because it's been, just for me, 13 years, but, you know, there were all these books from before, even. There were some old classics that were still perfectly good," Holly said. 

The school library didn't just lose books and technology, but years of trust building with the students themselves. Holly's daughter Sarah says that the experience her mother provided for the kids was invaluable.

"When I was at the school, we almost never used the library because, like [Holly] said, the books were out of date, and I would tell her all the time that those kids that she was working with didn't know how lucky they were because they had no idea what it had taken to get to that point, of her just updating the books and doing those kinds of personal recommendations," Sarah said. 

Neither Holly nor Sarah have been out to the site to see the wreckage, but Holly has been told it is decimated. She says others have described it "like a moonscape."

Sarah says she was "stunned" when she heard the news. 

"I knew there was that fire, and that it could be a possibility of losing my parents' house, but I didn't think about the school immediately," Sarah said. "I was more concerned for, you know, where they were going to be living, so that was a total shock to see it, know that it was completely gone immediately." 

Her mind turned to the work her mother had put in for over a decade. The time it took to build that school community was gone in an instant.

Foothills Elementary had only just reopened for in-person learning amid the coronavirus pandemic when the Glass Fire ripped through. Holly set up a "portable library" during that time, dropping off books and resources to classrooms. 

Credit: Sarah Racker
Students began to use the library more after Holly took over as volunteer librarian. [Faces blurred for privacy]

The school has now transitioned back to a distance learning model, Holly says, and without books or technology, library services have had to be put on hold. 

Sarah set up a GoFundMe page for the library to get back up and running. Though Foothills Elementary is waiting for insurance to kick-in, rebuilding the school will take time. 

"I set up the GoFundMe specifically to help with the library because I know it was something that [Holly] cared about a lot, that I care about. And I thought I could get interest around people who had gone to the school or just understood that, you know, library and books are not always the priority for rebuilding," Sarah said.

The Rackers are not taking physical book donations at this time, but for now, are just hoping to get a fund going to start acquiring books again until a permanent space can be created. 

"People at the school had asked my mom specifically for, like, a wish list of very specific books, but that can take a lot of time," Sarah said, "And she did such, like, specific curation of what the kids want, and she already knows that I thought it made the most sense just to try and raise as much as possible so that she could just trying to rebuild what she already had from that selection of books."

The GoFundMe has so far raised over $4,000. Besides buying more books, Holly plans to use the funds to install new shelving units and create a furnished space for the students to return to once the library is rebuilt.

You can donate to the GoFundMe by clicking here.

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