ALBUQUERQUE (AP) – Alyssa Sanchez’s home was destroyed and her professional life uprooted by the massive Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon wildfire.
But the 29-year-old Sanchez, a Mora teacher, refused to let the fire extinguish her love of educating kids.
She’s been staying at the Querque Hotel off Interstate 25 in Albuquerque, where the families of many Mora students also have been housed since they were forced to evacuate their homes. In an effort to return their lives to some sense of normality, Sanchez set up a makeshift classroom in a small dining room near the lobby.
Officials say the northward progress of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon blaze can be halted with continued favorable conditions.
“After two years of COVID, we got back to a ‘normal-ish’ school year, and then this fire broke out,” Sanchez said as she waited for her students. “I said, ‘I have to do something to help.’”
The idea occurred to her shortly after she moved into the hotel in mid-May. She ran into Denise Duran, the mother of one of her students, sixth grader Jazzlyn, in a hotel hallway. Duran said her daughter needed help with her studies or she would fall behind.
Sanchez went to work, offering morning classes to about 15 Mora students living in the hotel at the time.
Only a handful were still there last week, as the school year comes to a close, and just a few, including Jazzlyn, showed up for classes May 24.
“Her positivity has been amazing,” Duran said of Sanchez as her daughter sat at the teacher’s table. “She didn’t let what happened back home faze her.”
All four of Duran’s children who attend Mora schools have lost valuable learning time because of the coronavirus pandemic and the fire, she said. Knowing Sanchez is there to help them makes her feel “it’ll be OK.”
Sanchez has offered students of all ages lessons in whatever they need – math, reading, history or just a check-in on their emotional or mental well-being.
“I think COVID has stolen these kids’ education,” Sanchez said. Noting the pandemic basically shut down the end of the school year in 2020 and disrupted learning in much of 2021, she said Jazzlyn has “not had a normal school year since the third grade. For her, going into the seventh grade, that’s a long time to not have a normal school year.”
Sanchez, who was born and raised in Mora, said she had planned to enter the field of dentistry. But after looking at “a few too many mouths” in dental college classes, she decided that wasn’t for her.
She waited on tables – and still does as a side job – until she decided to study to be a teacher at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico. She was inspired by her mother, Evelyn Sanchez, a nearly 30-year veteran of the profession.
Evelyn Sanchez, who also is staying in the Querque Hotel as she awaits approval to return to her home in Mora, said her daughter told her she wanted to be anything but a teacher when she was younger.
“She told me I was stupid to be a teacher,” Alyssa Sanchez recalled with a laugh. “Never say never, right?”
Alyssa Sanchez has taught math and reading to special education students in the Mora school district for several years. She considers it a gift and said her favorite part of the job is watching her students “graduate from Day One to the last day of school” as they learn along the way.
She was one of those people who thought the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which has grown to more than 314,000 acres, would not reach her mobile home. New Mexico State Police knocked on her door and told her to evacuate one day in late April, and her home burned 10 days later.
The fire destroyed the trailer in about five minutes, she said.
She and her boyfriend, Chase Perez, got out with their dog, Scooter, two bearded dragons, a couple of pictures and enough clothes to last them a few days. They thought they eventually would go back for the rest, but now there is nothing to go back to.
She still hasn’t returned to see the scorched remains of her home.
Sanchez said the one item she regrets not taking with her is a purse her late grandmother gave her shortly before she died.
Despite her losses, Sanchez does not bear any sense of sadness or anger. “What is the worst that could happen?” she said. “It happened. I have nothing.”
At the same time, she said, she has everything: a job she loves and students she knows and cares for.
The hotel, in some ways, briefly became a small version of Mora – a tightknit community where everyone knows everyone else. Parents of Sanchez’s students have called her to ask if she needs a place to live after her home went up in flames.
She and her boyfriend will move into her mother’s house until they can find a new place of their own and start over, she said, adding, “We’re going to go back, and we’re going to rebuild.”
The principal of Sanchez’s school, Lefonso Castillo, said many Mora teachers are still giving lessons virtually but Sanchez may be the only one who has been doing it in person since the district shut down. He said she is a strong advocate for special education students who “really bonds with the kids.”
Sanchez said she has never regretted choosing the life of a teacher.
“I never knew my heart could hold so many kids,” said Sanchez, who doesn’t have any children of her own.