Anchorage teacher Heather Helgeson spent New Year's Day cleaning up the mess left by a "suspicious" fire that ignited in her fourth-grade classroom early Sunday. But she didn't have to do it alone.
"I've been overwhelmed by the generosity of everyone," Helgeson said on Tuesday at College Gate Elementary School. "I am absolutely shocked."
The day before, people started to show up at the East Anchorage school asking how they could help, she said. Some had rags to help clean the soot from the classroom's counters and shelves. Others sorted through piles of classroom supplies including books, papers and artwork that were drenched when the fire triggered the room's sprinkler system.
The volunteer clean-up team included some of Helgeson's students and their parents, as well as colleagues, family and friends. A few people who live nearby and who don't have children at the school also stopped by, asking what they could do.
"It was just phenomenal," said Helgeson, who has taught at the school for about 11 years.
Helgeson said she had one family offer to take home the classroom's stuffed animals and pillows to try to clean them, and fourth-grade teachers in the district sent her emails asking what supplies they could send her way. Someone else started an online fundraising page to help replace damaged items in the classroom. It had raised more than $3,500 by Tuesday evening.
"College Gate is an amazing community; it really is," Helgeson said.
College Gate Elementary sits near the intersection of East Northern Lights Boulevard and Boniface Parkway.
The Anchorage School District estimates the fire caused about $50,000 in damage, according to district spokeswoman Catherine Esary. Helgeson said a flare was put in her classroom and caught fire. The water from the sprinkler system damaged several other classrooms and a common area.
The district's insurance will cover most of the damages, Esary said. It will not cover the students' personal items.
College Gate has about 380 students. It's one of 37 Anchorage schools where every child eats free as part of a federal program for schools with low-income students.
Helgeson has 28 students in her class. In the fire, some students lost sneakers stored in the room for gym, winter boots, binders, notebooks and more.
The fire that started in her classroom, at the corner of the building, remained under investigation Tuesday, according to the Anchorage Fire Department.
A 911 caller reported the flames around 12:30 a.m. Sunday. The fire department said the cause of the fire was "suspicious in nature," but Cleo Hill, Anchorage fire marshal, declined to say more, citing the ongoing investigation.
On Tuesday, Helgeson's classroom was empty except for a few tables and chairs. The walls were streaked black. A broken window was covered with wooden boards.
In another classroom, she and her volunteer clean-up team had piled bins full of the school supplies that had survived the fire.
The supplies that didn't included a class set of Kindle readers that she said she had recently purchased with donations given through a crowdfunding website created to help teachers get materials for their classrooms.
Outside, trash bags were stacked on the sidewalk with more ruined items from the classroom, including notecards, binders, the classroom calendar, novels, headphones and artwork.
Helgeson said she planned to spend the rest of the school district's winter break sorting through items and temporarily setting everything up in another room in the school to hold class on Monday, when students return.
Meanwhile, she said, people continued to reach out Tuesday and ask what they could do.
"I feel so blessed. So many people have come out and offered to help," she said. "This is just an amazing little school."