(PARADISE, Calif.) — With the confetti poppers and the selfie sticks, from a distance, the graduating class of Paradise High School looked like any other group of high school seniors, but something was different.
Seven months ago, the students’ homes — and almost the entire city of Paradise, California — went up in flames because of the Camp Fire.
The fire began on Nov. 8, 2018, in Butte County, burned through thousands of homes and more than 150,000 acres. It also killed at least 85 people, many in Paradise. The 27,000-person town was especially hard hit in the fire.
The students from Paradise were forced to relocate as more than 90% of the high school student had lost their homes. Yet, they pushed on, committed to graduating on time and even juggling college applications.
Later that month, an 89-year-old real estate magnate from Southern California, with no connection to Paradise, hand-delivered $1,000 checks to each of the 1,085 students and staff.
On Thursday, the 2019 Class of 220 returned to the high school’s campus for the first time to receive their diplomas. The ceremony was held on the football field, which still remains as does the school’s buildings.
“I love these kids,” said high school principal Loren Lighthall. “Super proud of them for enduring, for living in trailers, for driving an hour each way, for overcoming all that to get here on the field tonight.”
The school received the second-highest math scores in the county and boasted the only National Merit Scholar in Northern California. Some of the students even took photographs, in their caps and gowns, amid the ashes where their homes once stood.
“People have referred to us as ‘Paradise Strong,’ but this quality was never created by the fire,” senior class president Garrett Malcolm said during his speech.
“To me, ‘Paradise Strong’ means helping others and exceeding expectations (and) doing your best with what you’ve got and then some.”
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