Community Raises $50,000 for Special-Ed Teacher Who Lost House in California Wildfire

September 3, 2020 Updated: September 3, 2020

A Central California special education teacher who first lost his fiancé to an aneurysm and then his house to wildfire has become the focus of a major community fundraising effort. Fifty-six-year-old Nelson Southward has worked at Los Arboles Elementary School in San José for 23 years and is loved by students and teachers alike.

In light of his recent losses, the community has raised nearly $50,000 to help him rebuild his life. “I AM SO BLESSED! I do not know how to thank you all,” Southward responded in a crowdfunding page set up to help the devastated teacher.

Like most everyone in 2020, Southward was already facing a disrupted year as his school closed in March due to the pandemic. Then, on April 8, his partner, Tracey Lee, described in his crowdfunding page as “the love of his life of the last 10 years, his best friend, his fiancé and partner,” passed away suddenly.

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Los Arboles Elementary School in San José, Calif. (Screenshot/Google Maps)

“I’ve got her ring,” Southward told KTVU. “I’ve worn it since I lost her.” But before he could even grieve the loss, the fast-moving CZU Lightning Complex Fire that has ravaged Santa Cruz County forced him to evacuate with hardly any notice.

“When I was waiting to find out,” Southward said, “I was really anxious about it, is [the house] there, is it not there.”

“He was not able to get home before the mandatory evacuation orders came down,” his GoFundMe page states, “so he could not save any of their cherished memories together.”

All that remains of the house that Southward and his partner shared is the mailbox.

In response to the devastated teacher’s plight, two groups sprang into action to help him back on his feet. One was organized by his fellow teachers at the elementary school, who recognized his dedication to children from disadvantaged backgrounds—the majority of the students he teaches.

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Mobile homes burn at the Spanish Flat Mobile Villa as the LNU Lightning Complex Fire burns through the area on Aug. 18, 2020, in Napa, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

His colleague 1st-grade teacher Julianna Flores praised Southward for continuing to give 100 percent of himself to his students despite his loss. “Honestly if you joined our Zoom sessions you would have no idea that he is going through so much right now,” she told the news outlet.

“Our community doesn’t have a lot, our school doesn’t have a lot, but we are still giving,” said teacher Maite Pons, who is now helping to raise funds to help Southward pay for living essentials.

All of the support has meant a lot, says Southward. “It makes me want to keep going,” he said. “I want to give back to who’s giving back to me.”

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