Football Rivals Raise Funds for California High School Devastated by Wildfire

"The town was devastated. At least a third of the students lost their houses," Ronald Wright tells PEOPLE

Photo: Eric Risberg/AP

It was supposed to be a big week for the students of Middletown High School in Lake County, California – plans included a five-day homecoming celebration with a rally, a dance and of course, the big football game against rival El Molino High School.

Everything changed this weekend when the Valley Fire – one of several wildfires devastating Northern California that have claimed lives and displaced more than 23,000 people – blew through the region.

Photos of the small town that lost more than 400 homes and 100 structures are being described as “post-apocalyptic,” and an NBC Nightly News segment lamented that the town had been “wiped off the face of the map.”

What was supposed to be a week of celebrating for the students of Middletown has turned into “the worst week of their lives,” says Ronald Wright, president of the booster club for rival high school El Molino.

“The town was devastated,” Wright continues. “A full third of the people who work at the school lost their houses, at least a third of the students lost their houses – along with that, they ve lost all of their athletic gear.”

When the principal of El Molino High School called Middletown’s principal to offer help, the embattled school asked for donations to help its student-athletes replace their gear.

“Replacing necessities like household items and clothes may not leave money to replace that gear,” Wright explains. “And we all know youth athletics is a great release, it’s a great place for these students to grow, and in times like this, it gives them that one positive thing.”

On Monday, Wright read an item in the local paper that inspired him to help Middletown’s athletes get back into their uniforms. In the days immediately following the fire, Middletown football players reached out to their coach to make sure he was safe and asked, “When can we get back to practice?” The Press Democrat reported.

Wright created a GoFundMe page that has raised over $6,000 in the first 24 hours alone. He challenged other area high schools to do some fundraising of their own and is also working with other schools and organizations eager to help.

On Friday night, when the El Molino Lions and the Middletown Mustangs were scheduled to be locked in fierce battle, the two teams will sit down to dinner together.

“Our plan is to head up to Middletown on Friday, if the roads are open, to host a team dinner with their football team and ours and present them with the gift cards and the donations and write them a nice, big check,” Wright says.

“We’re a small community like they are, and we can really relate. The one thing that seemed really natural to do is to help support these students get back on their feet,” he adds.

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