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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

EWU aiding students affected by wildfire through hardship fund

Cheyenne Stolp, left, talks with Kandi Teeters, center, and Stephanie Olsen at Omak Middle School on Tuesday about hardship financial aid she is eligible to get from Eastern Washington University because of Central Washington fires. (Jesse Tinsley)

OMAK, Wash. – Morgan and Cheyenne Stolp never thought they would have to lift a pig. But when fire raced overnight from Winthrop to their family’s rangeland in Twisp, the sheriff told them they had to evacuate – fast.

“They did not want to go,” Morgan Stolp said of the pigs, which eventually made it safely to a friend’s house outside the danger zone, along with the horses, chickens, cats and dogs.

Like much of Okanogan County, the siblings were displaced by the Carlton Complex fires. They each lost a week of work at the Twisp River Pub, and their family lost the foundation of a home they were hoping to build in Twisp, throwing them “even more into debt,” Cheyenne Stolp said.

Still, the Stolps – both incoming Eastern Washington University students – plan to be in Cheney when classes start late next month.

Enter the EWU admissions, student support and financial aid staff.

The Stolps were among the EWU students in Okanogan County who met with school officials on Tuesday to see how the school might be able to provide those affected by the fires with financial and emotional support.

The counselors set up camp at Okanogan High School and Omak Middle School, turning the school libraries into makeshift EWU outreach offices, greeting those who walked in with T-shirts, flip flops, bracelets, bags and cookies.

“We just don’t want this crisis to cause them to do something other than come to school,” said Michelle Helmerick, student support and advocacy manager.

That’s why the school last month authorized $250,000 of scholarship money for the EWU Student Hardship Fund to help pay for tuition and housing. Awards vary from $500 to $2,500 and are applied throughout the school year, Financial Aid Associate Director Kandi Teeters said.

In Omak, Teeters used the middle school’s Wi-Fi to pull up students’ financial aid packages and immediately grant the award after chatting with them about their hardships.

“It’s not much, but we still want to see you in the fall,” she told the Stolps as they left.

While EWU, like other schools, typically has a small fund set aside for students who experience hardship on a case-by-case basis, never has the school mobilized so many resources for disaster relief, Helmerick said.

The school personally contacted more than 100 current and incoming students by phone or email, informing them of the fund, admissions adviser Nathan Marney said. The school also publicized the opportunity on social media and news outlets.

Marney grew up in Chelan, about 20 miles southwest of Pateros, one of the towns hardest hit by the Carlton fires.

“It’s like every four years or so there’s a major fire in the area,” Marney said. “This is definitely the most impactful, as far as homes and residential areas. It’s pretty unbelievable.”

On Tuesday, surprisingly few students showed. Marney acknowledged he frequently got the voice mail or answering machine of students he was trying to reach, which he attributed to the chaos of the fire’s aftermath in which phone lines were down and the county was focused on immediate recovery efforts.

Through word of mouth, he said, he expects more students to contact the school in the weeks before EWU classes start Sept. 24.

EWU’s support doesn’t end once the students are on campus, said Helmerick, who will follow up with them in the fall to see if they need any more help. She described the costs of hardship as a domino effect: Even if the only casualty is the food in the fridge, that could still make it hard to afford textbooks.

Plus, students may have to miss classes to go back home and help out their parents – that could be a three-hour drive from the EWU campus in Cheney.

“We’re listening to each story and seeing how the Eagle family can come together and support them,” she said.

As the largest recorded wildfire in state history – and the second-largest in the country this season – the Carlton Complex scorched more than 470 structures in the Methow Valley.

Less than a month since it was sparked by a lightning strike, a thick haze still blankets Okanogan County. About 980 firefighters, nine aircraft and 49 National Guardsmen continued to battle the blaze, which is nearly contained.