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When Teri Chesson drove from her house in Paradise, California as the Camp Fire engulfed it, her 4-year-old grandson, Riley Wooten, clutched the one toy he saved, a stuffed dinosaur named Chompy. As embers fell onto the windshield of the car and the fire barreled toward them sounding like a freight train, Riley comforted Chesson.
“The whole time he was patting her hand and telling her it would be OK and he said to be brave,” Tanya Renfro, Riley’s great aunt, told TODAY. “She said if she wouldn’t have had Riley she would have lost it.”
During the family’s four hour evacuation, Riley stayed composed because he has a lot of experience in stressful situations. Riley said he is a dinosaur trainer to his impressive collection of toy dinosaurs. He gets what it’s like in high pressure situations. When he became scared as propane tanks exploded, he simply put his hood up and closed his eyes. Chesson and Riley eventually made it to a family member’s house, where they had been staying until recently moving into their own apartment.
During the fire, Renfro and her husband, Keith, were on a road trip. They felt relieved that their family members were unharmed but stunned by the amount of damage the fire caused. The family lost everything and each grappled with their grief in different ways. As the days passed Riley mentioned missing his dinosaurs.
“He said, “Aunt Tanya the house is gone.” I said, “I know baby.” He said, “And all my dinosaurs are gone.” And I said, “I know baby,” she recalled.
That conversation sparked an idea. People had been asking how they could help the family and Renfro decided to request dinosaurs to help the toddler cope with the trauma.
“This little guy, our Riley. He is my new hero he fled the fire with my sister. He was so calm,” Renfro shared on Facebook. “This kid lost almost all of his toys and dinosaur collection. He lives and breathes dinos and keeps asking if they burned up. I have a lot of friends asking how to help my family right now. If you would like to help Riley with a new toy or dino just message me.”
Renfro thought maybe one or two friends would send a dinosaur. But her post spread and over the past few weeks hundreds of dinosaurs arrived. The family couldn’t believe it.
“The humanity … is incredible. We have never experienced anything like this,” she said.
When asked what his favorite dinosaur is, Riley quickly answered: “The pooping one.” It is a foot-tall dinosaur that eats other dinosaurs and stores them in its belly, which is why the preschooler thinks it poops out dinosaurs. He also listed some of the other dinosaur-themed items he received, including a dinosaur bank, blanket, pillow, slippers and the Jurassic Park and World movies.
“I share the dinosaurs,” Riley explained to TODAY. He has donated some of his dinosaurs to children staying in the shelter in Gridley, California where he and Chesson are now living.
Renfro and her family feel stunned by the generosity.
“It is kind of hard to put into words … everything they have done helps that little boy overcome what has happened to him,” she said. “It has been overwhelming and amazing.”