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A Prom for Paradise: How a Latter-day Saint Teen Organized a Dance for the Students Who Lost Everything

by | Mar. 20, 2019

Mormon Life

Fifteen minutes. 

That's how long 17-year-old Emilee Taylor and her family had to pack their belongings before the Camp Fire consumed their home in Paradise, California. 

But even as Emilee and her family rushed to the nearby town of Chico to escape the flames, they had no idea that this fire evacuation, unlike so many they had experienced before, was the one where they would lose everything. 

Image: What is left of a neighborhood in Paradise, California, after the Camp Fire.

"I thought we were just going to come back and we didn't," Emilee says. 

But Emilee and many other teens affected by the Camp Fire lost more than tangible items—they lost community.

The high school Emilee and her fellow Paradise teens were attending was deemed unsafe following the fires. Just like that, gone were the school plays, the sporting events, the recitals, the pep rallies, the club meetings, and the dances. Everything that drew the high school students of Paradise together was gone. 

Instead, most of the Paradise teens began attending schools in Chico. And while the students at these schools were gracious, Paradise students like Emilee couldn't help feeling the intense loss of her own high school community. While many were helping Paradise teens rebuild their lives, it seemed that there was nothing that could help them rebuild their high school experience. 

► You'll also like: Watch: "Beauty for Ashes" Shares the Inspiring Story of the Saints in Paradise, CA [VIDEO]  

However, this intangible loss did not go unnoticed. 

Zac Newbold, a high school senior from Sacramento and Emilee's cousin, felt a strong desire to do something that would help bring that sense of community back to the Paradise students. And while sitting in class one day, he had the perfect idea of how to help.

"I was thinking, 'Well, they're students. . . . They aren't going to have any school dances or activities for a while, why not do a senior ball for them?'" Zac says. 

At first, Zac says he wasn't sure if it was even possible for him, a 17-year-old from Sacramento, to put on dance for the Paradise students. "I talked to my teacher, and I was like. . . . 'Is that even legal?'" he shares. 

As Zac worked out the logistics of putting on the dance, he had no idea what his small effort would mean to the Paradise students. 

Before the fire, Emilee's school had a winter ball scheduled for December. But during the fire, the venue, along with the homes of many of the students, had burned down, making it completely impossible to hold the dance in Paradise

"We just lost hope," Emilee says. "And then I got the text from my cousin." 

Working with fellow classmates, teachers, and residents from Chico and Sacramento, Zac began gathering decorations, food, hiring a DJ, and even procuring an ice sculpture for the dance, much to the surprise and excitement of Paradise students. 

"When everyone heard the dance was back on, the dance group was so happy," Emilee says. "They're like, 'We had all these decoration ideas we thought went out the door. But now we have something to look forward to.'" 

Students putting the finishing touches on decorations for the Paradise dance.

The most stressful part for Zac was organizing a dress drive where more than 800 dresses were donated for the students of Paradise. 

"I was like, 'I don't know if any of them are going to like the dresses, if they're their style,'" Zac remembers. "And then a girl walked out of the dressing room with her dress on and she was looking at her friend and she was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is so cute.' And that's when it kind of hit me: this is good." 

On February 9, 2019, it all came together as students from Paradise and the surrounding high schools in Chico met for the winter ball. 

"I felt like the dance was amazing," Zac says. "I was speechless at the end of the night from so many people with smiles on their faces dancing the night away as if there wasn't a care in the world. And to me, that's what the whole dance was about. Just being able to have a fun night [during] the rough patches." 

Though it's not always easy to be on the receiving end of service, Emilee says her testimony of service was actually strengthened through this experience. 

"Those people serving us are also receiving the Lord's love, and even though we are being served, we can also feel it," she says. "Even though we lost everything, we can still help others serve. I haven't stopped serving since the fire. I help in any way I can."

► You'll also like: How This Latter-day Saint’s “Inspired Act of Service” Is Blessing Lives After the Paradise Fire + How You Can Help

Throughout it all, Zac says he saw Heavenly Father guiding the process of organizing the dance for the Paradise students. Whether it was little prayers said during class about hiccups along the way or finding the time to help organize the dance, Zac says Heavenly Father was always reassuring him that things would work out. 

But Zac also saw how Heavenly Father was guiding him in his own life through this experience. 

"Heavenly Father's love is really strong," he says. "I've noticed that He truly does care. I was in somewhat of a darker place before this whole dance, a couple of months before this. And when I realized that I wanted to help, it kind of gave me some hope to be able to think it's not it for me either.

He adds, "I really think Heavenly Father has a big part in His heart for the kids in Paradise because they've been through so much. Hopefully, this one night will give them some sense of hope."

Watch the video about the dance for Paradise students below: 


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