Community rallies around special education teacher who lost his home to wildfire

A school community in San Jose is rallying around a special education teacher who lost his fiancé in April and now lost his home to the wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

56-year-old Nelson Southward is still distance learning from his parents’ home in Santa Cruz. The kids describe him as a big bear who drives a Harley. His students, fellow teachers and loved ones are keeping him strong.

Nelson is a special education teacher in San Jose for 23 years who every Christmas dresses up as Santa Claus. Nelson has also endured immeasurable loss.

His fiancé Tracey, his partner and best friend of 12 years, died of a brain aneurysm in April. He was still reeling from her death when the CZU Lightning Complex Fire struck the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“When I was waiting to find out, I was real anxious about it, is it there, is it not there,” said Southward.

Only the mailbox is left on Southward’s property. His home was burned to the ground. All his belongings, everything he shared with his fiancé is gone except her ring.

“I’ve got her ring,” said Southward. “I’ve worn it since I lost her.”

“Honestly if you joined our Zoom sessions you would have no idea that he is going through so much right now,” said Teacher Julianna Flores.

Flores co-teaches first grade with Southward at Los Arboles Elementary School in San Jose, a title one school where many families are low income.

Teachers set up a Go Fund Me:

“Our community doesn't have a lot, our school doesn't have a lot, but we are still giving,” said Teacher Maite Pons.

Southward’s students have written him letters and sent him money.

“This makes me happy, this keeps me going,” said Southward.

Faith, family, friends and a school community coming together are making Southward realize he has a lot.

“It makes me want to keep going,” said Southward. “I want to give back to who’s giving back to me.”

The Santa Clara County Association of Realtors also established a Go Fund Me where Southward’s fiancé was a pillar in the organization: