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  • Writer's pictureCrystal Ienni


Updated: Dec 16, 2018

I was eager to head up to Butte County Sheriff’s Department with my sweet blue sister and friend, Erin, Founder of United By Blue. Our goal was to pour our hearts and energy into this facility and first responders. Butte County Sheriff’s opened up one of their training facilities to first responders and their families who were affect by the fires. I can't fathom the heartache, and trauma the Camp Fire has created. All I could think of was "Support our first responders, so they can go back and support their community". I wanted to help so I gave what I had, my time, my heart, and gift card donations that I had received. I didn't know what to expect, I didn't know how long my day would be, but every minute was well worth it.

The Facility

I walked into a large room with tables set up with various household and personal items. Many hands were involved to transform this space into a mini Target. As I walked and scanned the room, I noticed it was filled with donated items. Seeing that room filled gave me confirmation that human kindness exists. It confirmed that we truly want to help one another regardless of what we believe, where we come from, and what we look like. When a tragedy hits close to home, we as humans naturally gravitate to wanting to be connected with others. So, we donate, give a helping hand and continue to aid those in need. 

My Volunteer Work

We stood most of the day filtering through large trash bags of donated items. My volunteer work consisted of rummaging through bags of donated items, dividing up the good, the bad, and the ugly. We were retrieving and setting aside the best for our first responders. We wanted them to walk through the facility and reclaim something similar to what they may have lost in the fire. They deserve to have the best of these donated items. There was no limit and no fee for any of the items they collected. Let me tell you, first responders are so considerate, no one wanted to take much. We had to offer and almost put items in their hands. 

We put in about 7 hours of volunteer work that day. At times the work seemed tedious, as many of the items we were going through were not in good condition. Socks with holes, stained shirts, dirty clothing, and pet hair is what we found in many of the donated bags. I could see why many organizations are now only accepting new items and gift cards. There was a lot of time wasted filtering through bags to only salvage 1 or 2 items. If you decide to donate clothing, please make sure it would be something you would wear today. Don't donate out dated, worn down items. No one wants damaged items; these types of donations are also hard to get rid of. 

Paradise Fire Victims

I love to talk and hear people's stories. As soon as I had the opportunity to help someone, I greeted them with a nice "hello, can I help you find something?" Then bombarded them with 100 questions. I met some amazing people, who shared some amazing stories. 

First there was a shy young girl who came in with her mother. She was not sure what to ask for or what she wanted. I have a 10 and 14-year-old girls myself, so I jumped all over to helping this sweet girl find what she needed. Her mother roamed around collecting items and I stayed and wandered with her daughter. We sorted through and found some items that appealed to her. Cozy socks (you know, those fuzzy ones) and a robe is what she expressed that she really wanted. We found the socks, she was happy to see some cute new ones available. As for the robe, I hurried and grabbed the only robe I had seen that day. She was so excited to have a cozy soft fluffy robe. Only thing missing was the sash, so we made do with a matching scarf. She didn't care if the sash was missing, she just wanted comfort from a similar robe she lost in the fire. 

Second was the wise lady who came in with her daughter-in-law and granddaughter. I could see the warmth beaming from her and I couldn't wait to meet her. We got to talking more than shopping, and I am so glad she decided to share her story. As we were going through some clothing, she made a statement that stuck with me. She said "I wish I would have grabbed my dirty laundry hamper, I would have all the things I could use right now." I said, "your right, that is a wonderful idea, in a moment of crisis just grab your hamper and leave." Leaving with the hamper means you would have your socks, underwear, bras, uniforms, comfy clothes, work clothes and all the other clothing pieces you enjoy wearing.

As we moved across the room searching for items, I asked her to share with me her experience with the fire. She told me that at first, she didn't know there was a fire. It was around 7 a.m. when she received a phone call from her husband who was at work. He happened to call her frantically advising her to leave their home immediately and explained that the was a fire that had spread into a field behind their backyard. In that short conversation he said "I'm not coming home, I'm controlling traffic, save yourself." For a moment, my heart grieved with her. So alone she left in her robe, shoes and photo albums in hand. As she was driving out of her neighborhood, embers were hitting her car and she terrified. No communication with her husband, no communication with her son or daughter-in-law (they also lost their home). Alone she drove carefully, seeing a convalescent home burn in flames, watching families hitch rides as they crammed themselves into other vehicles. The road was so jammed that many cars just idle for an hour or two, running out of gas (another tip, always have a full tank of gas). Once she reached the point of safety (a designated parking lot), she was blessed to be reunited with her family. They were all safe and at that moment nothing else mattered.

Third was the hero. A 78-year-old man who smelled of smoke and wore a face mask. After retiring from his job in the Silicon Valley at the age of 60, he decided to make the move and retire with his wife in Paradise. Retirement was boring, he stated and that is when he pursed a job with Paradise Police Department. Wow, this guy is amazing! 78 years old still serving the public. They lost everything in the fire and had to move to Yuba City (an hour south of Paradise) where they are staying in a motel. The hero told me he is sticking this through. He plans to rebuild his home again and has no intentions in leaving his city or department. I was inspired by him, a he showed what good health, loyalty, and commitment looks like.

True Joy

My experience volunteering at the Butte County Sheriff Department was a good reminder of what truly matters in life. It brought into perspective the value of life and the importance of investing in our relationships. There is not one possession, vehicle, dream house, video game, fancy purse or pair of shoes that could ever bring true happiness, peace or comfort. In a flash all of those so-called happy possessions could be wiped away. The Camp Fire proved that everything is perishable. It also brought forth that joy can still exists in the midst of tragedy. There was joy knowing that loved ones were still alive and when pets were found. 

Many valuable irreplaceable items have been destroyed. The amount of years it took for generational memorabilia to be created, the fire consumed in less than 30 mins. Heirlooms, baby pictures, wedding dresses, hard drives, and many more items are now gone forever. Devastation still lingers in the hearts of the fire victims, and at times a loss of hope can be rediscovered. There is one thing they all expressed in one way or another, there is joy in having loved ones by their side. 

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