Amid a Pandemic, Driven by a Desire to Serve

Camille von Kaenel is a 2019-20 Report for America corps member, covering wildfire recovery for the Chico-Enterprise Record in Northern California, focusing on a region that was devastated by 2018’s deadly Camp Fire. As of June 2020, she is covering growth and development in San Diego County’s backcountry for inewssource. 

“I wish I knew that it was our last day,” Camille tells me over the phone. “I could have brought brownies. It’s sad.” Now, because of the pandemic and the fact that she is moving next month to join a new newsroom in San Diego, Camille will probably never see her students again. The only connection she has to them is through their teacher, and all the stories they wrote together.

Once a week, Camille was teaching journalism to juniors at Durham High School. The English teacher she was working with was a journalist in a past life. Camille would present assignments and lessons to the students, teaching them skills, and giving them story ideas as they all worked together to publish a high school newspaper.

On March 11, in what would be the final lesson, back when coronavirus was still a far-away issue that had not yet taken over the American consciousness, Camille had created a simulation of a coronavirus outbreak at the school, leaving clues and leads for the students to find. People in Chico, the most populous city of Butte County, a 90-minute drive north from Sacramento, were already talking about coronavirus. There were no lockdowns yet. “Within a week, everything was shut down. I wish I had known.”

Driven by her love for mentoring young journalists, Camille dusted off an idea she had earlier in the year, adapted for the times of social distancing and a global pandemic: Coronavirus Diaries. After Camille got the approval from her editor, The Chico Enterprise-Record put out this call for student writers:

Calling student writers: tell us how you and your community are adapting to the coronavirus. Published on April 3, 2020 in The Chico Enterprise-Record.

“I thought of students as such a big part of the community and we are a community newspaper, so I wanted to give students space to tell their story,” Camille explains. She knew that at least her high school students would submit a piece. She had given them an early heads up and it was part of the appeal in pitching this idea to her editors.

Camille was on the lookout for interesting stories and good writing. She had seen similar sections in the LA Times and Desert News, so she knew this was not a novel suggestion. With a lot of subscribers to the paper being local high school families following their sports coverage, Camille was hoping to make space for non-athletes as well.

Something unexpected happened though. While The Chico Enterprise-Record is based in Chico, the biggest city in the area, and the newspaper mostly covers Chico because of its limited resources, only a couple of submissions came in from the city. A majority of the dozen submissions came in from towns and communities in more rural areas, which are generally undercovered. The Coronavirus Diaries is effectively helping the newspaper expand their coverage.

“I didn’t even think to hope for that” says a pleasantly surprised Camille.

Amid correcting punctuation and suggesting slight edits, Camille is also fielding some enthusiastic questions: “When can I get a copy? Will you let me know when it’s published?”

Camille wants these students to get a good experience out of writing for the newspaper. She remembers that when she was a student herself at Palo Alto High School, she participated in a short story writing contest in the local newspaper, The Palo Alto Weekly. “It meant so much to me to see my name in print and be recognized for my writing. It may have contributed to me wanting to be a journalist,” she explains.

Camille gave me a sneak peek into one of the stories she really likes. In a balanced combination of a peculiar anecdote and skilled writing, a 16 year old compares the interruption caused by campfire to the current pandemic. She interlaces her story with good imagery. As a student dealing with bad asthma, the campfire did not simply worsen her health, but also was probably the worst day of her high school career—until now.

You can read the first round of diaries here.

Camille says she wants to cultivate this type of writing and that she wants students all over to feel recognized by the community newspaper. “I just want these kids to feel that journalism is responding to them, and inclusive of them, and that they matter.” 

Volunteering two or three hours a week on a service project is a requirement for Report for America corps members, and most choose to work with students on a journalism or storytelling project. Corps members worked with about 700 students in 2019.  At the start of the pandemic, the program suspended the requirement. Camille’s project, like most of her fellow corps members’, came to an abrupt end when schools and after-school programs shuttered. So I asked her why she continued to do this work. 

“I felt like I still had a responsibility to do something, partly because of Report for America, even though I knew there wasn’t actually a requirement anymore. It was just something I wanted to do.”