Devastation. Loss. Hope. The juxtaposition of miles of destruction beside yellow daffodils and blooming trees left a sense of irony hanging in the air. While much of the world has moved on from the destruction caused by the fire in and around Paradise, California, last November, the members of the community are still reeling from the trauma of losing their homes, their loved ones, and their livelihoods.
During the 2019 spring break, a group of 17 students, faculty, staff, and alumni from Walla Walla University (Washington), Pacific Union College (California), Milo Adventist Academy (Oregon), and Gracepoint Adventist Church (California) traveled to Paradise to bring relief to whatever needs were most pressing. The first weekend, the group was also joined by 11 additional volunteers from Gracepoint Adventist Church.
Brittni Bryan, Walla Walla University assistant chaplain for missions, said that while relief organizations are often well intentioned, they tend to flood people with things that are not actually needed. One of the primary concerns of the WWU group was providing help that would truly be beneficial and not merely bringing unneeded resources.
The group traveled to Paradise with the intention of providing clean water, food, and physical labor where needed. The Seventh-day Adventist church in Paradise is one of the only locations in the area with a functioning well of clean water. The group bottled water and handed it out to the community, providing hope and relief for one of the largest needs.
While the group did have a plan of action, such as passing out water, they purposefully chose to keep their schedule flexible in order to be available to support the people in whatever projects were most needed in the moment. Some of these tasks included translation skills, removing debris, providing warm meals, handing out firewood, and sorting donated clothing. Their overall hope was to provide the ministry of presence.
David Lopez, executive director for the WWU Center for Humanitarian Engagement, said that while a few permits to rebuild homes in Paradise are being issued here and there, overall the community expects it to be another five to 10 years before the town is truly ready to rebuild.
“What people really needed,” said Lopez, “was a break from their trailer or their hotel.”
There are individuals and whole families who have lost their homes and are stuck inside small spaces all day. One of the most important things these people can be given is the opportunity to have some respite, to collect water, and eat food with other people from their community and the people who have brought hope, shared Lopez.
Even though the prospect of full restoration is years out, the people “are determined to rebuild,” said Kiana Brusett, WWU freshman English and music double major. “At first, it seems preposterous to rebuild. The whole town looks like a war zone or a post-apocalyptic movie. The cleanup alone is going to take ages,” she said. “But beauty is rising from the ashes. Hope is rising from the ashes in Paradise. The hopelessness I expected to find isn’t here. There is devastation, to be sure, but these beautiful people are determined to grow out of it.”
Lopez estimates that the group was able to connect directly with about 1,740 people and that their work was able to save about $11,000 in physical labor. As the community members started to see how much the group was helping, they also wanted to become active in helping in whatever way they could.
“There are different kinds of courage,” said Brusett. “Some kinds of courage roar; some kinds of courage whisper; some kinds of courage do what has to be done. The people of Paradise portray every kind of courage.”
Paradise won’t see full restoration for a long time to come, but hope has been planted. The daffodils are there as a reminder.
— T. Brooke Sample is a WWU University Relations student writer.