When 90-year-old Bob Wilson came across a news story about how a devastating wildfire had left hundreds of students and faculty members at Paradise High School without their homes and possessions, he immediately felt he had to do something to support these struggling families.
“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,” Wilson told the San Diego Tribune.
“They still don’t know… 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.”
Wilson lives in San Diego and has no ties to the city of Paradise, which was largely destroyed earlier this month when the Camp Fire raged through large portions of Butte County in Northern California and killed at least 88 people. But Wilson — who is a real estate investor and owns a chain of restaurants — told the Tribune that it was his own memories of being a teenager, and how important those years were to him, that inspired him to help this community of people he had never met.
“It was probably the first, last and only carefree time of my life,” Wilson told the newspaper. “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 then phoned the principal of the school and told him his plan: he wanted to give every student and faculty member a $1,000 check with no strings attached, meaning, they were free to use the money in whatever fashion they liked.
“[I wanted to] give a little freedom to do whatever they wanted to do and maybe take their minds off what happened for a short period,” Wilson told CBS San Francisco.
The school has 980 students and 105 teachers and staff members, and Wilson, along with his wife, Marion, would need to donate $1.1 million if each were to receive $1,000. Wilson, determined to make it a reality, then packed two briefcases filled with checks and flew 500 miles north to the city of Chico to meet with the students and faculty to hand over the money in person.
“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,” Principal Loren Lighthall told the Washington Post. “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.”
As of Sunday, the Camp Fire was 100 percent contained after first sparking on November 8 and burning across more 153,000 acres, according to Cal Fire.
Wilson said the experience of serving this struggling community was as delightful for him as it was for those he helped.
“When I do something like this, let me tell you, there is absolute joy in giving,” Wilson told the Tribune. “It’s a happy occasion. I couldn’t be happier about doing something and doing it directly and not through some agency.”