The Paradise High School football team had a stellar season, earning the Bobcats a playoff slot earlier this month. But they missed the game.
“By then, almost the entire team was homeless,” reads an article in the Los Angeles Times, which details how the Camp Fire ravaged the town and left about 90 percent of its students without a home.
California businessman and restaurant owner Bob Wilson read the story about the teens — about how they scattered with their families looking for roofs over their heads, about how they were regular kids one day and their lives were upended the next. The school shut down. It was uncertain how the seniors would even graduate.
“I felt terrible for them,” Wilson said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I couldn’t stop thinking, 'How can I help?’ ”
So he took out his checkbook and wrote a $1,000 check — then another and another and another — 1,085 of them in all. He wrote one for each student, teacher, administrator, custodian and bus driver from Paradise High School. And he delivered them personally on Giving Tuesday.
“Good intentions are just good intentions unless you act on them,” said Wilson, an 89-year-old real estate developer who co-owns a chain of Fish Market restaurants and shuttles between homes in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Wilson spent hours in his Los Angeles office stuffing envelopes with checks — worth a total of $1.1 million — and placed them into two suitcases before traveling more than 500 miles to the city of Chico, near Paradise, to hand them out. He had one for each of the school’s 980 students and 105 teachers, administrators, custodians and bus drivers. He does not otherwise have a connection to Paradise.
Paradise students haven’t been able to return to school since Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire raged through Northern California, killing nearly 90 people, destroying 14,000 homes and sending residents fleeing for their lives. Over the weekend, officials said they had finally contained the fire. Paradise students will resume classes Monday in a Chico shopping mall, 15 miles away.
Wilson said he was touched by their story because he imagined himself as a teenager — looking forward to the football playoffs, excited about prom — but then losing everything.
“It’s hard to think of anything more difficult than losing your home and everything you own, especially when you’re enjoying your high school years,” he said.
Wilson was concerned that if he wrote a check to a charity it might take too long to reach victims of the fire, so he delivered the checks himself, no strings attached, no questions asked.
He thought $1,000 would help students buy new clothes, shoes and laptops, or they could choose to give the money to their parents for gas, groceries and other expenses.
"I decided that if I could just put a smile on their faces and give them the freedom to do whatever they wanted with the money, that would make me happy,” he said.
Wilson's own teen years were the best time of his life, he said, especially his senior year on the football team at Escondido High School near San Diego.
Raised on a small farm with two siblings, “my high school experience was the first, last and only carefree time I've ever known,” said Wilson, who graduated in 1947. “Sports, dances and hanging out. That's what high school is about."
Paradise High School Principal Loren Lighthall said he was overwhelmed by Wilson’s generosity.
“What he’s done is awesome. This puts money into people’s hands right now, and it pumps more than a million dollars into the economy,” Lighthall said. “Over 90 percent of the homes in Paradise burned down, so our kids are super excited to get these checks. Really, it’s all they’re talking about.”
Wilson handed out the checks Tuesday evening at a pizza party held at Chico High School. He pointed out that only half of the money came from him; the other half is from his 90-year-old wife, Marion Wilson, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
"She no longer knows me, and she doesn't know the dog,” he said, “but I'm not going to say, 'Woe is me.' I can't do one thing about it. But I can do something to help the kids in Paradise."
Students found a letter from Wilson tucked inside their envelopes, wrapped around each check.
The notes read, in part:
"My age would probably place you not as a grandchild, but a great-grandchild if you were part of my family. Please know that you are not alone, as someone as far away as San Diego is rooting for you and has the firm belief that tomorrow will be better than today.”