Sifting the Ashes of a Labor of Love

Times Staff Writer

Joyce Rudberge began the arduous task Monday of sifting through charred remains of the materials she had spent two decades collecting for her students at Esther L. Walter elementary school in Stanton.

"After 20 years it's a bit difficult to start over," the teacher said. "I've been completely wiped out."

Rudberge's classroom was destroyed and two others were heavily damaged in Sunday's pre-dawn blaze that authorities say was deliberately set. Total damage to the school was estimated at $195,000.

Rudberge, who teaches first grade and is a 16-year veteran of Walter school, estimated that she had spent more than $10,000 of her own money over the years on supplemental classroom material, including flash cards, books, games, videotapes and computer programs. Not included in her estimate were the materials that she had made herself, a practice common with teachers at the school.

"Some of (the material) is hard to replace because you can never buy the games you make," said Debbie Varon, 25, whose kindergarten classroom was spared from the flames.

"Teachers put out a lot of their own money when they go into education," Rudberge said. "Every year I spent between $500 and $800 building up material for the children."

On Monday morning, teachers tried to comfort the children whose classrooms were torched, including those who were involved in a class teddy bear sharing project.

"I asked all the kids to bring in their teddy bears," said Rita Milnik, 26, a second-grade teacher. Her students were going to write and share stories about the bears. "We were going to have a big teddy bear party at the end."

But Milnik's classroom was also destroyed--with it the teddy bears. "I'm still going through trauma, I think," she said.

Some of the children cried when they were

told that their bears had been destroyed. Milnik said she was hoping the school district would be able to replace them.

"We got in a big circle and talked about our feelings. We said it's OK to be hurting right now."

Portable trailers are to be delivered to the school, in the 10800 block of Rustic Lane, within two weeks, according to Charles (Bud) Williams, 44, principal of the school.

"Everyone has taken it very well," said Williams, "but we have all lost something very close to us."

Meanwhile, Rudberge was busy Monday ordering new books and games that were lost in the fire. She received added encouragement after she found that a $200 shipment of books that arrived Friday had not been delivered to her classroom.

"That was a good surprise," Rudberge said, vowing to rebuild her collection to its former volume.

Despite the fire, the school will be open as usual. County fire officials said no arrests have been made. While the fire is known to have been purposely set, they said, the exact cause remains under investigation.

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