Community, Assistance, and Delicious Vegan Food for Wildfire Survivors in Last Chance, California

Northwest  |  July 31, 2023
In the scorching sun, the Tzu Chi Silicon Valley volunteer team arrive at the “Last Chance” community to provide personalized support and commemorate the heart-warming moments shared with wildfire survivors with photos. Photo/Judy Liao

Written by Qizhen Huang, Huiping Liu, Judy Liao
Translated by Ariel Chan
Edited by Patrick McShane

The “Last Chance” community in the Santa Cruz Mountains, CA, in the Southern Bay Area of Northern California, was devastated by severe wildfires in the summer of 2020, leaving it in ruins. In the three years since the disaster, Tzu Chi Northwest Region volunteers provided continuous support. They not only attended monthly community meetings to understand the community’s needs but also established individual care cases, offering personalized assistance to residents.

On the weekends of June 24th and July 4th, 2023 the Tzu Chi Northwest Region’s Silicon Valley volunteer team, undeterred by the blazing sun, visited the “Last Chance” community to assist residents in need.

Volunteers enter the homes of survivors to check on the progress of their reconstruction.
Volunteers enter the homes of survivors to check on the progress of their reconstruction. Photo/Judy Liao

Facing Difficulties with a Smile

Vickie Culjan’s house was completely destroyed by the wildfire that swept through the area in the summer of 2020. Since the fire, she, her husband, and their son had been living in a trailer. Recently, her husband and son began building a kitchen and storage room outside the trailer. Although it’s not yet completed, and the space isn’t very large, it provides extra room for their daily cooking and storage needs. Vickie smiled and told Tzu Chi volunteers, “Our reconstruction is slowly progressing, inch by inch, but we are still very happy to be able to live here.”

Vickie showed the volunteers a professional barber chair inside the trailer, which had signs of extensive use. Vickie, who had just retired from her work as a barber, proudly and somewhat sentimentally said, “I’ve had this professional barber chair for 23 years.” She mentioned that she put a lot of effort into bringing this chair, which had accompanied her throughout her career, back to the mountain. She plans to make good use of this historic barber chair in the future by offering haircut services to her neighbors in the mountain community, as a way of giving back to the community.

Survivors introduce the yurts they call home to the volunteers
Survivors introduce the yurts they call home to the volunteers. Photo/Judy Liao
Survivors invite volunteers into their homes
Survivors invite volunteers into their homes, and everyone had warm smiles on their faces. Photo/Judy Liao

The Warmth of Yurts

Reconstruction progress has been slow due to the challenges of obtaining permits for house reconstruction in the remote private community. More and more community residents have chosen to build yurts, a large tent-like structure used for centuries by nomads in Asia, as an alternative housing solution.

Terra Barsanti, who is in her sixties, lived in a simple tent for over two years after the wildfire. However, the summer heat and the lack of insulation during the winter made it an uncomfortable place to live. Terra applied for permission to build a yurt and completed it at the end of 2022. Unfortunately, continuous storms this past winter made traveling to the community difficult, so she couldn’t return to live in the community until this summer. Terra enthusiastically invited Tzu Chi volunteers inside her home to see her newly built yurt. She happily told the volunteers and neighbors that it was her fourth day living in her own yurt. Terra danced excitedly and said, “This morning, I showered in my yurt for the first time.” Everyday activities that may seem ordinary to most people are now precious milestones of progress for survivors.

Priscilla Dawn Stevens, a survivor in her seventies, began constructing her yurt later than Terra. However, when the same severe winter storms that prevented Terra from returning to the area hit the community, construction came to a halt. It wasn’t until the summer when the weather dried up that she resumed construction. At this point, her yurt is still under construction, and she expressed admiration upon hearing that Terra could already shower in her yurt.

On the Fourth of July, the “Last Chance” community transformed their monthly meetings into a festive potluck gathering. Community residents shared their specialty dishes and snacks with their neighbors and enthusiastically invited the friendly Tzu Chi volunteers in the community to participate in this joyous gathering.

The potluck gathering was filled with sounds of chitchat and greetings. Since members of the community knew that Tzu Chi volunteers have been promoting vegetarianism, they prepared lots of delicious vegetarian food for this joyful occasion.

Volunteers took the opportunity to meet residents they hadn’t had a chance to speak with and understand the recent developments in the lives of new care cases during and after the potluck. They also provided deeper care for neighbors they knew well. 

Community residents share their specialty dishes and snacks with their neighbors and Tzu Chi volunteers.
On the Fourth of July, the “Last Chance” community transforms their monthly meetings into a festive potluck gathering. Community residents share their specialty dishes and snacks with their neighbors and Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Judy Liao
Volunteers interacting with the Last Chance community
Volunteers take the opportunity to meet and understand the living situations of new care cases during and after the potluck gathering. They also provide deeper care for existing cases. Photo/Judy Liao

Caring for the Heart with Gratitude

Susie Devergranne, a resident of the “Last Chance” community took Tzu Chi volunteers to her home to show the progress of reconstruction. They walked up a very steep slope, and they saw trailers. Susie was very happy to introduce her newly built outdoor dining area, outdoor bathroom, and the latest additions: a deck and a roof for her trailer. These newly constructed structures provide shade and shelter from the scorching summer sun.

Susie’s husband and son worked hand in hand, sawing wood, cutting boards, and things assembling piece by piece to create the roof that now covers the trailer home and the front porch to expand the family’s usable living space. Despite the various challenges posed by limited tools, finances, manpower, and the slow progress of reconstruction, Susie’s family perseveres on the path to rebuilding with incredible patience and determination.

The volunteers also had the chance to meet two adorable little dogs that Susie takes care of. Susie named one of the dogs “Thank You,” which piqued volunteers’ curiosity about the reason behind the name. Susie explained, “I adopted this dog in November last year, right after attending Tzu Chi’s charity fundraising concert. At that time, my heart was filled with the emotions that Tzu Chi had brought me. So, I had the inspiration to name the dog ‘Thank You.’ Every time I call the dog’s name, it’s a reminder not to forget the help that Tzu Chi has given me.”

Life in the mountains is not easy. For the residents, utilities like water, electricity, and heating pose challenges and require extra effort. Volunteer Petra Donnelly was deeply impressed by the determination and courage of the residents to stay in the mountains and rebuild their homes despite such adversity.

I hope everyone can be as positive and sunny as the residents here.

The wildfires are long gone, and the storms have passed. The famous California sunshine shines on the road ahead. With the encouragement and companionship of Tzu Chi volunteers, the journey may have its bumps, but it will be built with happiness brick by brick.

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