Catholic schools in north state open doors for families and students affected by Camp Fire

"It's tragic. I feel for the people, but it's encouraging to hear their stories,” said Thomas Burnford, president of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), as he toured the remnants of the town of Paradise on Feb. 22. Burnford was accompanied by Lincoln Snyder, superintendent and executive director of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Sacramento, and Paul Weber, regional director of north state Catholic schools.

Traveling from the NCEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Burnford, who has been president and CEO of the NCEA since August 2016, visited St. Thomas the Apostle School in Oroville and Notre Dame School in Chico. Both schools are among a handful in the diocese who have welcomed students and families affected by the Camp Fire, which destroyed most of the town of Paradise in November 2018. Across the north state, 30 students have been enrolled in diocesan elementary schools. These students had previously attended both public and private schools in Paradise. Teresa Schwabauer serves as principal of Notre Dame School and Kasia Heinert serves as principal of St. Thomas the Apostle School.

"To welcome students and open up the school reflects the best of who we are as Catholic educators and the church,” Burnford said, after speaking with students at Notre Dame. "The people I met today are tremendous. They clearly have sacrificed to serve others, even amidst their own struggle. To see the Catholic school teachers and leadership continuing on with their mission, serving their students and families, is what I would expect and is incredibly encouraging.”

Outreach to families affected by the Camp Fire was made possible through the Camp Fire Student Fund, which launched within days of the fire. "We decided to accept the kids on a matter of principle...We made the offer not knowing how many people would show up," Snyder said.

As the dust of the Camp Fire was settling, the campaign gained traction across the diocese and the nation. The campaign succeed expectations and raised more than $100,000 in contributions, both direct donations and foundation grants. These funds are being directed towards offsetting the operating costs of the schools, including hiring additional staff, purchasing supplies, books and uniforms, Snyder said.

"After a devastating event like the Camp Fire, there are young people who need a school, who need seats in a classroom and who need education, and the Catholic schools welcomed these kids," Burnford said. "The generosity of a quick response to help those in need really does demonstrate how the schools are an integral element of the local community.”

To make an online donation to the Camp Fire Student Fund, visit

The NCEA is the largest private professional education organization in the world, representing more than 150,000 Catholic educators serving nearly two million students in Catholic preschool, elementary and secondary schools.

In photo above, Thomas Burnford, left, NCEA president, and Lincoln Snyder, executive director of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Sacramento, visit with students from Notre Dame School in Chico. Jason Weinrich photos.

More photos from Thomas Burnford's visit:

Thomas Burnford visits with two students at Notre Dame School in Chico.
Thomas Burnford and Lincoln Snyder visit with students at Notre Dame School in Chico.
Thomas Burnford speaks with Teresa Schwabauer, principal of Notre Dame School in Chico.
Lincoln Snyder, left, and Thomas Burnford, speak with Paul Weber and Teresa Schwabauer.
Destruction from the Camp Fire is evident on the grounds of St. Thomas More Parish in Paradise.