Residents Affected by the Camp Fire: Laurie Johnson

National Headquarters  |  March 1, 2019

The decimated community of Paradise, California was desperate for any bit of good news as residents struggled to recover from the Camp Fire during last November. So, Laurie Johnson and her husband perked up when a neighbor excitedly said, “You’ve got to go meet those Buddhist volunteers!”

When the couple arrived at the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC), they made a beeline to Tzu Chi USA’s Volunteer Station and showed the intake volunteer a picture of their home, of which only the brick fireplace remained.

When asked where they were currently staying, Laurie explained: “We’re temporarily in my sister’s laundry room in the backyard. We’ve barely managed to fit a small bed in between the machines, and the window doesn’t close completely either. Luckily we have a small space heater, and the Da Ai Technology blanket helps us stay warm. Being in such a small space gives us plenty of chances to cuddle and share our warmth.”

Mr. Johnson added with an affectionate smile: “Yeah–you always put your legs over me!”

He continued to see the positive side of their situation as he turned to the Tzu Chi volunteer.

“My knees have been injured and I’ve needed a big bed to get comfortable, so I had gotten out of the habit of cuddling with Laurie. Now in our tiny bed, it’s easy to keep each other warm. And, losing our home means there’s no need to vacuum the carpet every week!”

The Johnson’s sweet interactions, easy smiles, and acceptance of the inconvenient changes in their lives caused by the catastrophe were touching. We felt remorseful for their loss, but their love and mutual support reassured us that they would be all right.

Laurie gratefully accepted Tzu Chi’s cash card, explaining how it would help them replace her husband’s knee brace and other pressing medical expenses.

“Marvelous! Warm-hearted! Full of love!” These were Laurie’s comments on Tzu Chi’s disaster cash relief and volunteers who provided assistance.

Mr. Johnson’s eyes began turning red and teary as he told us how touched he’d been by the support of Tzu Chi volunteer Wang Jian-Mei. Wang was obviously emotional about the Johnson’s loss and traumatic experiences.

Tears flowed down Mr. Johnson’s cheeks as he explained: “I do not cry easily. I was always focused on helping others whenever I could. This is my first time experiencing such a terrible situation. Needing so much help myself is really a different feeling.”

Then he accepted a Tzu Chi bamboo bank and listened carefully to the volunteer’s explanation.

“By participating in the spirit of bamboo bank giving, you’ll instantly transform yourself from a recipient into a giver again. Our goal isn’t to collect a certain amount, it’s to give wonderful people another chance to publicly share love with each other.”

Laurie replied in her normal positive demeanor: “The fire disrupted our daily routine, forcing us to consider completely changing our lifestyle. We intend to do more exercise, spend time outdoors, and improve our diet. It is a good opportunity to establish new habits.”

Mr. Johnson recalled sensing the Tzu Chi volunteers’ compassion as soon as he approached their station to apply for cash relief. The intake volunteer helped him take a seat, verified the documentation he needed, and shared stories about Tzu Chi.

For the first time he had heard stories about Burmese farmers saving part of their crop to help other people in need, and how Tzu Chi had organized volunteer communities in 98 countries around the world. These stories deeply moved Mr. Johnson and brought him to tears again.

As Mr. Johnson had mentioned, he and Laurie had always done their best to help others when they could. While escaping the fire, they were told that a single 72-year-old lady with diabetes was still at home with her three dogs, not worried about leaving because she wasn’t aware of the fire’s destructive power, yet.

Without a second thought for their own safety, the Johnsons turned around and drove 30 miles back towards the fire, hoping to persuade the woman to leave. Once there, they were informed that the woman had been rescued by her niece.

“It feels so great to help save lives! That’s what I’ll always remember about that day, not the pain of losing my home and everything we own,” Laurie told Wang, the Tzu Chi volunteer, with a big smile.

The Johnsons had seen many examples of sincere altruism on that fateful day. Trees and cars were burning on both sides of the roads, and heavy dark smoke blocked the light and darkened the sky, yet everyone was more concerned about each other’s safety. The compassionate Johnsons, along with many other affected residents, had re-written a story of devastating loss into a testament of people caring for one another.

Three weeks after the fire changed her life forever, Laurie couldn’t help but feel depressed and tearful after another long day. Yet something her mother had told her never failed to cheer her up and strengthen her resolve.

“You need to face and accept whatever has happened. If there is nothing else you can do, just leave it behind and walk away. Don’t let yourself give in to depression.”

The volunteer responded: “In Tzu Chi we say, ‘When you face the sun, you leave the shadow behind.’”

Laurie opened her eyes wide, responding with astonishment and laughter: “I like it! That’s right. Exactly!”

Many community members who rushed to the DRC to seek help arrived with various emotions. Some were stoic, others tearfully agitated, while some residents were calm and accepting of their fate.

All had managed to escape from a deadly fire, an experience most of us cannot imagine. It makes our hearts ache with sorrow for people everywhere who must face great panic and fright while escaping from a disaster, without knowing where they’ll go and knowing many new challenges will be in their future.

Many such people found a new sense of closure, hope and camaraderie at the DRC. They were finally able to release many pent-up emotions, and find peace of mind thanks to Tzu Chi volunteers’ care and healing hugs.

Tzu Chi volunteers brought warmth to the DRC, and people in dire need gained new faith in the world.

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