Oct. 23 will mark the one year anniversary of the Kincade Fire, a fire that ravaged thousands of acres of land, threatened countless homes and structures and prompted the largest mass evacuation of Sonoma County residents that the area has ever seen.
A few weeks shy of the fire’s anniversary Jennifer Utsch, the local artist behind the Heartizens nonprofit organization for kids, published a new book, 'Shining with Resilience' and a classroom kit for educators that serves as a resilience building and healing resource for children who have been affected by wildfires, particularly the most recent fires — Tubbs, Kincade, Walbridge and the Glass fires.
The book follows the story of Maria, a young owl who is forced to evacuate her loquat tree home with her family when a wildfire threatens the community.
Maria has to come to terms with her feelings after facing a disaster, but also learns about the importance of hope and rebuilding efforts.
Maria’s story started evolving after Utsch dreamed up the owl character from her first book “Wings to Fly.” Utsch also found inspiration for the character from her own loquat tree on her property in Healdsburg. A friend of hers in Alexander Valley also had a loquat tree.
“Last year during the Kincade Fire my friends who live in Alexander Valley stayed on the farm protecting their property… The whole book was written during Kincade. It was my way of processing the fire,” she said, “And also bringing some meaning to the fire of how we might be able to help kids process.”
Utsch had a lot of help with the book from Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a Santa Rosa-based clinical psychologist who specializes in fear and trauma.
“She helped me with each page to make sure each page of the book had an activity where we can discuss an emotion that the kids have, or something meaningful to help kids process social and emotional stuff. I am super grateful for Dr. Manly for helping me create the book so it’s broad enough to cover things such as COVID and hurricanes,” Utsch said.
Examples of these discussion starters include asking the reader where their home is, what home looks like to them, what are their family roots, how they get ready for bed, if they sleep OK, has anything scary ever woken them, how did they feel and others.
Manly also provided 12 worksheets as a social and emotional well-being supplement to the book.
“This adult-led curriculum packet is designed to help children access their emotions in a safe manner. By learning how to access and process difficult emotions and experiences, children build their emotional resilience in a step-wise approach. Through the power of the 'Shining with Resilience' classroom kit, children emerge with stronger mental health capacities,” Utsch said in a statement.
While the story focuses on a fire-related natural disaster Utsch said she hopes the book can help children who experience other types of traumatic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, COVID-19, isolation or the loss of a loved one.
"The fire that Maria goes through is something we can all understand on a visceral level. Whether it's a fire, hurricane or pandemic, once we realize that we can access our emotions and use our left and right brain to make it through the challenges and traumas of life, we can move forward in a mindful way,” Manly said. “‘Shining with Resilience’ paves the way for children to understand that whatever traumas they come across in life — whether in the home environment or the greater world — there is a positive, healing way to move through them."
In regards to the curriculum packet, Utsch is working on preparing packages and information about the book and curriculum for the Healdsburg Unified School District.
“I’m in the process now of putting those together, getting a cover letter and putting them in a binder and giving them to the school superintendent,” she said.
The book’s illustrations were completed by Paloma Perez, an artist who was Utsch’s high school intern through the Healdsburg High School internship program. Perez completed all of the illustrations during COVID.
The book will be available at the Jam Jar, the Healdsburg Tea Company and online on Amazon.
Utsch will be doing a book signing at the Healdsburg Farmers Market on Saturday, Oct. 24. The market runs from 8:30 a.m. to noon in the West Plaza parking lot.
To learn more about the book, visit: https://www.flipsnack.com/heartizens/resilient-umyx0s8hp8.html.