From helplessness to hope
Like most people, Cynthia Owens felt helpless as the Oregon wildfires crept closer and closer to her home. She waited, watching the evacuation orders come within just a few miles of her home in Portland. Bags were packed, windows tightly shut against the dense smoke that permeated everything.
But the evacuation order never came. The fires started to recede after two weeks of tense waiting. Soon the smoke started to clear and she could breathe again. Like so many in the Portland metro area, she breathed a sigh of relief.
But so many others did not dodge that bullet. In fact, while she waited, closed up in her home, she read of the hundreds of homes lost in the Oregon wildfires, and a new kind of helplessness took over. So many lives upended. So many homes lost. Homes filled with precious belongings, warm beds, soft landings.
She was helpless in the face of the wildfires and the smoke. But this she could do something about.
When she learned that 2,500 homes had been lost to the wildfires in Southern Oregon, she decided to go to work. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she wondered if there was anyone in the church in that area that she could help.
With the assistance of her church leaders, she found Deni Goodwin, the leader of the women's organization of the LDS ward in Southern Oregon. The Bear Creek ward takes in the communities of Talent, Phoenix and part of Medford. She learned that 72 families in the ward had lost their homes completely. The leadership of the church there were furiously trying to find lodging for hundreds of displaced people.
The fires had moved so quickly in that area that there had been no evacuation orders. With no notice, the families had fled their homes with nothing — some wearing just pajamas and slippers. That night, Deni and her team made a spaghetti dinner for 80 people, while others tracked down all of their membership. Even with so many in need, it took the Red Cross four or five days to show up. The ward managed the best they could.
Cynthia started to rally her church family, friends and neighbors in the Portland metro area. Even though it was 95 degrees in September when the fires raged, she knew that the last thing they would be thinking about was coats, but they would need them within the month.
So she called for coats, and coats came. Hundreds were donated, some brand-new with tags still on them. The donations poured in. Beyond coats, people brought clothing, furniture, TVs and supplies. Cynthia had to rent a trailer to haul it on the four hour drive to Southern Oregon.
There were enough warm coats for everyone in the Bear Creek Ward to take one or two.
"A man, still a little disoriented, walked around holding two coats: one a raincoat and the other a heavier winter coat. They asked if he needed help. 'I just can't decide.' he said. We told him to take both. He was just amazed that he'd be able to do that — that we had enough that he could," said Ms. Goodwin.
In fact they had so many coats, clothes and toys that they could not use it all. They offered them to the Mexican Consulate and the foster care system in Medford.
Even after those donations, they still had furniture, housewares and canned goods donated to them beyond their needs, so they opened it up to the wider community to come and take whatever they needed.
"We had so many amazing resources and so many people out there with nothing, we were so grateful to be able to share it," Ms. Goodwin said.
Deni Goodwin, who did not lose her home, says that the trauma has changed her.
Deni chokes up when she talks about it.
"It's changed the way I see a lot of things. I've learned that I need to help people how they want to be helped. They don't always need stuff, sometimes they need money. Let people come and pick what they want — don't keep track, just give. Gift cards donated to our ward meant that people could buy what they needed — it helped them look forward, feel less like victims. Every time we ran low on donations, more would come in — it was like the loaves and fishes over and over," she said.
Two months after the tragic fires, all but six families from the Bear Creek ward have found housing. They feel like they can breathe again.
Deni received a call from Rachel Rencher from Portland a couple of weeks ago. She has begun collecting Christmas gift cards for her friends in the Bear Creek ward.
"Christmas is coming," Rachel said. "We want you to have Christmas."
Deni was stunned. They hadn't given Christmas a single thought.
Loaves and fishes indeed.
Tracey Snoyer is a West Slope resident.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.