A Camp Fire Survivor Has Hope Restored

Northwest  |  February 22, 2022
Suzanne Morrison, Tzu Chi’s Disaster Recovery Operations Administrator, provides resources, friendship, and support for Camp Fire survivor Lynette Otto. Photo/Rong Changming

Written by Cody Chan
Translated by Pheel Wang
Edited by Maggie Morgan

Lynette Otto unloaded her belongings from a rundown RV parked in Magalia Community Church’s campgrounds. The motorized vehicle is the only thing Lynette has had to call home since California’s notorious Camp Fire of 2018. The deadliest wildfire in the state’s history struck in the early morning of November 8, and burned longer than two weeks straight; it took down entire neighborhoods and wiped out the town of Paradise completely.

Camp Fire’s impact can still be felt in the communities of Butte County three years later as many survivors have not recovered financially or emotionally. Tzu Chi’s Northwest Regional Office continues to do all they can to provide physical, mental and spiritual relief for those in need, especially on an individual basis for people like Lynette. In order to keep up with the increasing need for community aid, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation set up a new office after the destruction of Camp Fire. The new office, Tzu Chi Chico, is an offshoot of the foundation’s Northwest Regional Office and is located in Chico, California.

Change Starts With One

Tzu Chi’s mission is clear: end suffering for all beings by whatever means necessary. Sometimes, that suffering starts with one experience and can then touch the masses. As Robert M. Pirsig put it in his groundbreaking Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

The life Lynette had once known was completely changed by California’s Camp Fire. Her survivor spirit kicked in after the devastation and Lynette was able to salvage some of her belongings and moved into her vehicle full-time. 

Lynette knows what it is like to help those in need as she is an In-Home Support Services caretaker, takes care of her two-year-old granddaughter, Madison, and works for the Magalia Community Church in partnership with Alliance WorkForce. Through the alliance, Lynette has been able maintain her altruistic endeavors and give back to her community by working at food and furniture distributions.

In June, Lynette met Baba Kauna Mujamal, one of Tzu Chi Chico’s Disaster Case Managers, and Suzanne Morrison, Tzu Chi’s Disaster Recovery Operations Administrator, at the Church simply by chance. Once they heard her story, the Tzu Chi representatives were moved to take on her case and help Lynette in any way they could.

Baba and Suzanne worked on the case for months. The two started by finding a mechanic to make Lynette’s car functionable, but they found it was a better option to find a replacement. The team found a new car that was much  larger and a better option for her situation. The next task was to better Lynette’s living conditions.

Tzu Chi Chico provided Lynette with a new commuter car. Photography / Rong Changming

On the day Lynette’s life would begin to change, our volunteers offered their sentiments: “Little by little we just started finding little things that we thought would help her to move from her basically homeless place into somewhere she could have dreams and goals and a future. And that’s what’s going to be finalized today. [We] started in June and now it’s September”. 

Tzu Chi volunteers pulled up to the campground with hope for a new life in tow as they delivered Lynette her new RV and new car.

The new trailer was towed to the camp where Lynette was staying. Photography / Rong Changming

Lynette tearfully exclaimed “I had nothing. Nowhere to go, barely got a vehicle, lived in and out of my vehicle. It was just me and my granddaughter.

Baba Kauna Mujamal, one of the disaster case managers working on the case, mentions that one of the massive improvements of Lynette’s new home is safety.

“The other [RV] did not have a door that could fasten or even lock, and the one that she has now is almost three times that size. It has three beds for children in the back. She has her own private space up front, kitchen. All the electricity works. She has air conditioning.”

Lynette now has a master bedroom with private space. Photography / Rong Changming

As is evident, Lynette is always one to take care of others. She reflected on this reality and said, “[I] never really take care of myself, take care of everybody else”.  Before the fire, Lynette took care of her mother while doing side work to support herself. She now takes care of her son’s daughter while her son is away. Baba and Suzanne decided it was time for Lynette to be loved the way she loves others.

Kevin Lindstrom, the pastor at the Magalia Community Church, said “It’s a great place now for her to bring her granddaughter…she’s almost a changed person.”

It All Comes Full Circle

Suzanne was deeply moved by Lynette’s story and had a difficult time closing this chapter. 

“It’s hard for me to actually just close a case like that, ‘Okay here we helped you. We’re not going to ever help you again.’ I still would want her to know that she could call me if she has issues. There’s a lot of women out there that are struggling.” 

With a new home and car, Baba and Suzanne are hopeful that Lynette will be able to get back on her feet. The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation and its team members are always finding themselves in these synchronistic situations; meeting people, hearing their struggles, and becoming one part of the narrative that is their life. Just as our founder Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s story began, hope begins with just one action towards change and that momentum can carry us to places we’d never expect. Like inside a church in California, talking to a woman who needed help as she was working to give back to others. 

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