Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris' guest for Tuesday's State of the Union address, has survived two American tragedies.
In 2017, the air traffic control specialist and her husband Jed, who have three children, lost their home in Ventura, CA, in the Thomas Fire. This year, she was furloughed during the 35-day government shutdown. Her husband, a Navy veteran who is also an air traffic controller, worked without pay.
Since losing what Pesiri-Dybvik calls their "dream" home — historic, perched on a hill with a gorgeous ocean view — they moved to a rental property in nearby Camarillo, which they were also recently forced to evacuate as a result of floods and mudslides after the Woolsey and Hill fires. The rebuilding process has been "beyond cumbersome," said Pesiri-Dybvik, but at least it has kept her busy.
"Keeping busy helps me to keep going," Pesiri-Dybvik told Refinery29 in an interview. "I'm trying to secure a stable environment for my children. That's my driving force. I kind of want to get to the other side and get things to a sense of the normalcy we've been missing. It's been a lot of change for us. I'm just working my tail off trying to get things back to normal."
Pesiri-Dybvik and her husband were both at work in December 2017 when they heard that the wildfire was spreading toward their home. Their nanny was home with the two youngest kids — Brynlie, 5, and Johnnie, 3 — and had to pull them out of bed to evacuate.
I'm trying to secure a stable environment for my children. That's my driving force. It's been a lot of change for us. I'm just working my tail off trying to get things back to normal.
"For our 5-year-old, it's been the hardest," Pesiri-Dybvik said. "She is old enough to remember the trauma of the fire. Her and my youngest son were at home. They got pulled out of bed in their pajamas, without any shoes. I met them in an outlet parking lot. She often tells the story of that night. Recently, the Woolsey Fire [which Pesiri-Dybvik's parents had to evacuate; their home is safe] brought up a lot of those fearful feelings again. She's at a really good preschool and doing well, but as a mom, I worry all the time about her little heart. We lost everything. She lost all the things that were important to her."
Pesiri-Dybvik said the ordeal has brought her and the couple's oldest daughter Mackenzie, 13, closer together. "She's studying government in school and has been interested in the kind of work she sees me doing. I've enjoyed that changed relationship."
With her husband, she said, experiencing the tragedies has helped her communicate on a "much more profound level" than they have in the past. But, she added, "We don't have a lot of time for us. We long for the days when we could talk about something simple. We miss that."
But now, as an active National Air Traffic Controllers' Union member, Pesiri-Dybvik said she's deeply honored to be able to speak up on her colleagues' behalf. During the shutdown, her job was deemed non-essential, and her husband's workload increased to make up for the furloughed staff. Neither of them were receiving paychecks.
Because of the nature of air traffic controllers' jobs, shutdown-related stress had the added layer of being a risk to people's safety. "Every single day the shutdown continued, the system was a lot less safe than the day before," Pesiri-Dybvik said. "And the last thing you want is your air traffic controller to work another shift before their job."
Now, after having visited with Sen. Harris' staff to advocate for her colleagues, she looks forward to meeting the senator in person. Sen. Harris says she hopes hearing from workers like Pesiri-Dybvik will help Washington avoid another government shutdown.
"Since the tragic loss of their home, Trisha, Jed, and their three children have worked diligently to bounce back and reestablish a sense of normalcy in their lives, even amidst an unnecessary government shutdown that caused both of them to miss their paychecks for over a month," Sen. Harris, who has made a speech about Pesiri-Dybvik on the Senate floor, said in a statement. "Trisha’s story is just one of many stories I heard during the shutdown of Americans whose lives were upended and who faced those difficult days with strength and resilience."