The first day off after the school year is always welcome for school administrators, and the pandemic only added another layer of relief this year.
But for Sheryl Zimmerer, executive director of Logos Public Charter School, Friday will be one for the scrapbook. That’s because besides being her first day off after the tumultuous 2020-21 school year, it also happens to be the day she and her husband gain possession of their new house in Talent roughly nine months after their previous house burned in the Almeda fire.
The new home was built on the same plot of land where her previous house stood before the Sept. 8, 2020, fire, and one day before she was scheduled to get the keys Zimmerer could hardly stand to wait a minute longer.
“I am so excited,” she said.
The smoke alarm was already blaring when Zimmerer entered her house at about noon on the day of the fire. She left school early after receiving a call from her husband, Kevin. At first, he told her there’s smoke but don’t worry, stay there. Then traffic came to a standstill, the smoke plume kept growing and he called back to say change of plans, get home fast.
It wasn’t the house they were concerned about. The Zimmerers lived across the street from Kevin Zimmerer’s parents, and his mom was home alone as the fire approached. Also, the Zimmerers’ dogs were at the house. Sheryl Zimmerer’s father-in-law and soon-to-be son-in-law showed up right about the same time she did, the future son-in-law with a big, empty box truck. “Do you want me to start loading stuff?” he asked. “How about the motorcycle?”
Kevin Zimmerer said no thanks, the motorcycle might get damaged in the truck. In the end, they grabbed only a few photo albums but not all, the dogs and dog supplies. They were in and out in about 30 minutes.
“My husband started getting worried about the roads getting blocked, and I was worried about an afternoon meeting I had,” Zimmerer said. “So that’s how disconnected I was to what was going on.”
She made that meeting, but by then a few employees had shown up at the school with nowhere else to go. About 11 people — and their animals — slept at Logos Public Charter School that night, and not all of them worked there.
“We had dogs, cats, rabbits … just all kind of menagerie,” Zimmerer said. “I remember walking out to the parking lot and knocking on a guy’s window, and he was just in tears and goes, ‘I don’t know where to go, please let me stay.’ And I said, ‘No, no, it’s not about kicking you out. Do you want to come in, use the bathroom? We have food.’”
It wasn’t until late that night, on an air mattress in her office, that Zimmerer turned her attention to the fire, and as it became clear that her home was in danger her mind drifted to all the things she had left behind: home videos, family heirlooms, and perhaps most precious, a piece of jewelry that her husband had bought her during a dangerous work-related trip to Columbia.
Kevin Zimmerer had to buy insurance to cover a possible ransom in case he was kidnapped while there, so it only seemed fitting to pick up something shiny for his wife before he returned: a ring. For all Sheryl Zimmerer knew that night, that emerald ring and everything else she treasured was in danger.
“It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have this happen,” she said. “It’s really those family memories of who you were as a family.It’s the photos, it’s the videos, it’s the things you wanted to pass down to your kids. It’s just who you were and who you wanted them to remember you to be. I’ve had a lot of people say funny things like, ‘Oh, it’s just stuff.’ Until it’s your home and you don’t have a place to call home, it’s a completely different experience.”
The Zimmerers found out their house was gone the next morning when a family friend drove through the neighborhood and texted a picture of the rubble, the address-stamped curb in the foreground. There was little doubt, but Sheryl Zimmerer still wanted to see it for herself. She did that afternoon and was still stunned at the sight. Even a fireproof safe housed within another fireproof safe was reduced to ash. As she poked around looking for anything salvageable within the foundation, Zimmerer fell and had to get a tetanus shot.
“I was just beside myself, obviously,” she said.
The Zimmerers couch-surfed their way through seven homes over the next three weeks before finally finding permanent housing in Central Point. And that’s where they’ve been for the past eight months, sharing the place with Sheryl Zimmerer’s in-laws while she continued to lead Logos through a school year that was sure to be a doozy even before the fire.
Running the largest non-virtual charter school in the state has taught Zimmerer a few things about how to cut through red tape and deal with bureaucracy, and she encountered plenty of both as she navigated the treacherous waters of insurance agents and government agencies while working to replace her home. Now having gone through it and emerging relatively unscathed, at least two things stood out to Zimmerer: one, if even somebody with her know-how struggled to get the wheels of recovery moving, it must have been an overwhelming situation for many others; and two, the generosity of Southern Oregonians, from small businesses offering special discounts to families willing to open up their homes, was something to behold.
“When you’re in that space where you don’t know what to do next, it was just a lifeline,” she said.
So Zimmerer ran the school during the day, steering it through a steady stream of state guidance updates, and worked on the house problem at night. That would have been exhausting during an ordinary school year, but 2020-21 was extraordinary in many ways.
“It was this weird school year, where you’re navigating virtual and in-person classes, cleaning and masks, contact tracing and vaccines, and opinions by everybody on every side of every issue, on top of what you normally do during a school year,” she said. “So it was extraordinarily difficult to be a school administrator. Then at night, we’re trying pick out whether this color’s right, or whether we should put that faucet in.”
Now that it’s over, Zimmerer marvels at how well the school’s students and staff adjusted and persevered. The official name for Oregon’s remote learning plan was comprehensive distance learning, but Zimmerer says a term like “crisis schooling” may have been more accurate, because nobody who went through it had any choice in the matter.
During the rebuild, the Zimmerers frequently made trips to the house. After the porch was done, they started bringing lawn chairs and a cooler so they could sit there with their dogs at night, just like before. Almost everything they own went poof Sept. 8, but when Zimmerer talks about the ordeal she and her family went through, she sounds more grateful than anything else. She raves about Suncrest Homes, which built the new house, about the community that wrapped its arms around them “and wouldn’t let go,” about her students’ ability to adapt.
She’s also grateful for her daughter’s determination, because that’s what it took to sift through the ash and find that missing emerald ring, which was later restored by a local goldsmith. No charge, of course.
“She’s like, ‘I’m going to find it,’” Zimmerer said. “And she dug and dug. It’s pretty beat up and it’s got a lot of scars on it, but I think that’s perfect for what we’ve gone through. And I have that ring.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com.