Written by Christina Chang
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Dilber Shatursun
On September 8, the Slater Fire ignited across the border region between California and Oregon. In response, Tzu Chi Northwest volunteers made special arrangements to provide emergency financial aid in locations easily accessible to survivors on October 30: two Starbucks along Highway 5 in Redding and Yreka, California.
Hitting the Road
In the early morning, ten Tzu Chi volunteers gathered at the Tzu Chi Northwest Regional Headquarters in San Jose, CA. They loaded essential supplies and themselves into four separate vehicles, travelling along Highway 5. Their first stop would be Redding, about a four hour drive. Waiting for them would be a Starbucks, where the outdoor seating would be turned into relief stations for volunteers to meet one-on-one with care recipients in a safe and socially distant manner.
Once the pre-scheduled meetings in Redding were done, the team packed up and head another hour and a half north to Yreka, CA. This location was also a Starbucks along Highway 5. Altogether, a total of $8,900 in emergency cash cards were issued to 20 separate households, benefitting 43 individuals. Tzu Chi volunteers also gave out nine DaAi Technology eco-blankets, 42 cloth masks, and four bags of Jing Si Instant Rice. Furthermore, they also handed out care items including sneakers, warm socks for winter, toothpaste, and toothbrushes.
About an hour and a half from Yreka is a place called Happy Camp. The Slater Fire destroyed at least 150 homes there and killed two people.
A young woman called Cardea arrived at the distribution. Her father had bought land in Happy Camp many years ago and had divided it among his five children. The Slater Fire destroyed all five family houses and each household has since fallen into deep financial difficulty. Accompanying her father, Cardea went to live by the river near where they had lived. Her father slept in a tent, while Cardea took refuge in her car.
Sitting with a Tzu Chi volunteer, she read aloud a letter that had been written by Dharma Master Cheng Yen. It contained a heartfelt message of condolences and blessings for the wildfire survivors. Tears rolled down her face. Silent for a long time, she finally smiled. She told the volunteer, “for those of us who have lost everything, everything you have brought us through this long journey is really appreciated.”
Tears of Grief and Love
Just two weeks before the Slater Fire had ignited, the Happy Camp Elementary School was among the few schools in California that could return to in-school instruction. Unfortunately, more than half of its staff members lost their homes to the wildfire and about half of the 109 students were left homeless.
Another woman, Dalanea, owns 62 acres of land in Happy Camp. She told Tzu Chi volunteers that it took her five years to rearrange the trees and landscaping surrounding her home. But, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, it all burned down in the fire. She also read Master’s letter and was equally moved. Crying, Dalanea said, “I hope that one day I will be able to give back such love.”
Dalanea worked at the cafeteria of the Happy Camp Elementary School. She hopes to return to school as soon as possible, wishing that one day that the children can be together and enjoy learning again. Dalanea gave her wholehearted thanks to Tzu Chi volunteers: “I’m very, very grateful. This help is really appreciated.”
At the Last Minute
As the day came to a close in Yreka, the evening grew chillier. Every registered recipient on the list had come to collect their emergency cash card and supplies – except for one. A gentleman named Gary from Happy Camp was missing.
Looking up his information, Tzu Chi Northwest Region Executive Director Minjhing Hsieh gave him a call. Picking up, Gary said he was still in Happy Camp – about an hour and a half away – sorting out the remains of his home. He had forgotten that today was the distribution. Knowing how late he’d be, Gary asked if they would wait. Like a reflex, Minjhing replied, “definitely.”
By 7 PM, day had turned to night. When Gary finally arrived, it was remarkably cold. Tzu Chi volunteer Chijen Huang hurried over with a blanket to keep this traveller warm. As the meeting with Minjhing continued, Gary kept rubbing his hands together. Someone noticed his hands were covered in soot.
As it turned out, Gary had been every day to his former home in Happy Camp, trying to clear out the wreckage and ash, yet salvage what he could. Seeing how welcoming and accommodating the volunteers were, Gary said, “it really makes me feel very warm.”
Warmth Through the Coming Days
Coordinator of the disaster relief team, Tzu Chi volunteer Grace Chen, explained that one of the main reasons they had chosen these locations along the highway was because of their convenience for now dislocated and spread out care recipients.
Not being familiar with Tzu Chi previously, Starbucks staff members learned about Tzu Chi’s mission to help wildfire survivors and about their relief mission across the US. Before Tzu Chi volunteers left the store in Redding, employees were eager to take a photo with these ‘blue angels.’ In awe, one of them said, “what you did today is really great. Even though I didn’t know who you guys are, thank you.”
Though it was a touching and productive day, the following one would be big: they’d do their sixth and final distribution in Medford, OR, where they’d be joined with volunteers from Tzu Chi Portland. Though this would be another new group of people they’d meet and come across, Tzu Chi volunteers have the confidence that they can warm hearts and help make a real difference.