With many of their homes damaged or destroyed in the state’s most devastating wildfire, the students of Paradise High School face an uncertain future.
On Tuesday, Nov. 27, a man they have never met from a city more than 500 miles away will give them a gift he hopes will provide at least a small measure of security, support and comfort in a dark hour.
Rancho Santa Fe businessman Bob Wilson plans to personally deliver a $1,000 check to each of the school’s 980 students and 105 employees in Chico at a venue that has yet to be determined. That’s a total $1 million for the wildfire victims to use as they see fit, no strings attached.
“What I wanted was for them to have complete freedom to do whatever they wanted with that $1,000,” said Wilson, 89. “The most important thing about this is that they’re going to get it now, when they need it. A month from now, who knows what’s going to happen.”
Sitting in the living room of his sprawling Rancho Santa Fe home on Thanksgiving morning, Wilson, a real estate developer and co-owner of six Fish Market restaurants in Los Angeles and San Diego, said he has no personal connection to Paradise, a town of 27,000 residents near Sacramento that has been reduced to little more than smoldering rubble by a 152,000-acre wildfire.
Wilson said a news article he read last week about the town’s devastation inspired him to help the students and staff.
“The Los Angeles Times ran an article last week on the high school and how these kids were, you know, upended you might say, and they didn’t know where they were going to go, when they were going to get back to high school, or what’s going to happen. They still don’t know,” Wilson said. “And I thought, ‘Gosh darn, these kids — I had such a great time, such great memories of high school — if I could help those kids out I wanted to do that.”
Reading the article, Wilson said, he realized that the students had lost more than just their homes and their town. They had lost a sense of security that defined the carefree high school experience Wilson treasures to this day.
“It was probably the first, last and only carefree time of my life,” Wilson said of high school years filled with football, track and student government. “I could go home no matter how late, my mother always had dinner for me and I always had a bed to sleep in.”
Wilson said he felt compelled to help the students of Paradise High. Personally. Immediately. Directly. Before the embers of the town’s smoldering wreckage grew cold and the public’s attention turned elsewhere. The only question was how to do it.
“I thought about, ‘OK, do you go to the Red Cross? How do you do this?’” Wilson said. “Then I thought, ‘No, it’s too slow, too bureaucratic. What I want to do is I want to give every one of those kids $1,000.’
“I got a hold of the principal, and you could have pulled that guy off a cloud, he was so excited about what I was proposing,” Wilson continued with a chuckle.
As they ironed out a plan, Wilson said, “I thought, you know, why don’t I encompass the whole high school? So there will be another 105 checks going to teachers, janitors, administrators, bus drivers so the whole school is a beneficiary you might say.”
A heartbeat later he added, “I’m really the beneficiary as much as them.”
The benefit Wilson said he receives is the singular joy of personally helping others in need, as opposed to writing checks for “obligatory philanthropy” to large charitable organizations.
“When I do something like this, let me tell you, there is absolute joy in giving,” Wilson said. “It’s a happy occasion. I couldn’t be happier about doing something and doing it directly and not through some agency.”
Wilson said the Paradise High School students and staff can use their $1,000 however they want and they don’t have to account for it. The point of the gift is to lift the recipients’ spirits, he said. It’s a gesture to let them know that they are part of a community, that people care about them and will show up for them on their worst day.
That sense of support is something Wilson said he experienced first hand when one of his Fish Market restaurants in San Diego caught fire in 2015.
The morning after the fire, 50 employees showed up without being asked to pitch in with cleanup. A neighboring seafood restaurant and food distributor lent refrigerated trucks to take frozen seafood and non-perishable items to storage. A Mexican restaurant owned by the family of one of the Fish Market’s servers sent a feast to feed the volunteers.
Wilson said he wanted to do right by his workers, who had suddenly found themselves without work. He said he paid all the restaurant’s 278 employees for the three months the restaurant was closed for repair.
“They all live paycheck to paycheck,” Wilson said. “I decided we’re going to pay them and that’s it.”
Of those 278 employees, all but three returned to their jobs when the restaurant reopened, Wilson said.
Like the joy of helping friends in need, the feeling one gets from finding unexpected help in a dark hour is priceless.
“That feeling of strangers coming to help, that’s another type of joy that you can’t get any other way,” Wilson said. “Money won’t buy it.”
--Morgan Cook is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune