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Paradise Aftermath: Where the sidewalk ends

On our road to Paradise, no one had any real sense of what we were about to experience.

It had been 4 months since the California Camp Fire in Paradise decimated the small town and our team at Sixdegrees wanted to find a way to help support those that suffered at the hands of this tragedy. We decided to partner with a social enterprise that is making a difference in the heart of homeless communities across the country. Sackcloth and Ashes makes beautiful blankets and has adapted the one-for-one model. With each purchase, they donate a blanket to a local shelter. Their mission is simple: to bring comfort, dignity and resources to the homeless population with the goal to distribute 1 million blankets with their Blanket the United States Campaign.

Sixdegrees.Org Founder, Kevin Bacon and Sackcloth Founder, Bob Dalton launched a campaign in January with the purpose to bring goods and comfort to those that were effected by the fires in California. Sackcloth donated 500 blankets and along with our partners at Hadley Impact, we set out on our road to Paradise to meet those people most affected. No one of us had any real sense of what we were about to experience. No one on the drop had been there prior but we had all heard that this tight-knit town was almost completely lost by the fire. As soon as the Welcome to Paradise sign appeared on the road, the shells of structures immediately followed. Seeing the loss up close was silencing.

Jodi Drysdale is a program coordinator with the North Valley Community Foundation, a Chico based organization that has distributed over $8 million dollars to fill the gaps that FEMA and other government allocations had after the fires wiped through Butte County. Jodi was kind enough to take us around Paradise so that we could hear first hand accounts. We drove past the 86 crosses that a Greg Zanis, a carpenter from Illinois, built and installed in memoriam of the lives lost. He has made it his mission to create these memorials in a variety of tragedies since the Columbine shooting in 1999.

We found ourselves in front of the elementary school where teachers had mere minutes to pile children into their cars when they heard the evacuation call shortly past 8am. It was a miracle that no children were killed. In the first 90 minutes of the fire, 10,000 acres were already ablaze. To put it into terms that were shared with us: the fire moved the length of a football field every second. People had only moments to escape and as we know, many were unable to.

We arrived at one of the structures left standing, Paradise Alliance Church. A large sign draped across the front stating simply “You are Loved”. We gathered to meet 20-25 families that were affected by the fires. As one of very few organizations left standing, they played a vital roll in the weeks and months following the fire. As a gathering place and resource center, they handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in gift cards to help those affected. They helped organize food trucks to come into the community in order to help serve those that were there to assess damage and provide cleanup.

It was there that I met one of the congregation’s members, Chris. Chris walked in cautiously. As I introduced myself and shook her hand, I saw a quiver behind her eyes. I asked her how long she had lived in Paradise and she began to tell me that she had been there for 31 years. She had lived in a mobile home park where she knew at least two-thirds of her neighbors. She was a single woman and her neighbors and church family were her community. She received the notice at a little after 8am and left quickly with only her purse and the clothes on her back. She remembered thinking that she surely would be back and it would be contained quickly. Chris didn’t return home again. She lost everything she had owned. She continued to tell me about her about how a dear friend helped her to navigate the next few months and find a new home in Chico, the closest city down the hill from Paradise. The demographics have changed from her retirement community and many of her neighbors are younger working families. There are a few retired people on her street and she has tried to rebuild community through commonalities like walking their dogs in the evening. As Chris shared her uncertainty, I found myself swallowing hard to stop the tears from pooling. She shared that she, like many others in her position, had only recently had the numbness fade. While the rest of the country has moved on to the next crisis and headline, the people that called Paradise California home are just now starting to process what has happened. Our understanding of Post Traumatic Stress has expanded.