July 18, 2022
Trauma, toughness, and joy: what Paradise holds for MDS volunteers
Paradise is full of twists and turns. Paradise, California, that is.
To reach one of the new homes they are building, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers must navigate miles of canyon roads full of hairpin turns—without the security of guardrails.
The drive takes patience, as do many aspects of working in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“They’re going to have fun getting a refrigerator down in here,” muses MDS Project Director Don Lichti with a wry smile, standing at the bottom of a canyon near a home under construction.
More than three-and-a-half years after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed 18,000 structures in Paradise and surrounding areas, the grim burnt skeletons of large trees still loom over the mountainside—but green undergrowth and colorful wildflowers have returned.
“At first glance, it may not look like a burned-out place because the green is here, but if you look carefully you’ll see driveway after driveway—without houses,” said Lichti.
The residents who are trying to rebuild Paradise all know someone who didn’t make it out. They share their own traumatic stories with MDS volunteers, like the young woman who was able to leave only a two-word voice message—“Grammy, fire”—before the cell towers went down.
The sunny morning of Nov. 8. 2018, turned so dark with smoke and ash that nobody could see more than a foot in any direction. A nurse had to leave her car in flames, and blindly run—until by some miracle her hand hit the back of a fire truck. Another couple led their horses to a pond, hoping they’d survive.
As MDS Crew Leader Laverne Delp meets local residents and hears their stories, he increasingly realizes how patient they are.
At the same time, MDS has to be patient and flexible when it comes to getting people back home. Building a new home in California is complex: there are more inspections requirements than most other states, the supply chain is moving in fits and starts, and the rugged terrain poses its own set of challenges.
"At first glance, it may not look like a burned-out place because the green is here, but if you look carefully you’ll see driveway after driveway—without houses"
— Don Lichti, MDS Project Director
“Some volunteers may only be here a week,” said Delp. “Some volunteers may only see the painting done.”
With a half dozen homes complete and several more in the words, Delp knows it’s sometimes hard for MDS volunteers to see the full impact of their work.
“But some residents here have been living in a camper for nearly four years,” he said. “When we think the work is moving too slowly, well, maybe they’re better at seeing the end product than we are sometimes.”
Another crew leader, Joann Barta, has made the nine-hour drive from her home in Forest Grove, Oregon, several times to help out in Paradise.
She has a sense of empathy for what the fire survivors are feeling.
“When we lived in Guam, I lost my home to a hurricane, and it was really hard to go back and live there,” she said. “I was pregnant and had toddler. For months, I couldn’t do much.”
As work is temporarily stalled on one house due to issues with inspections and supplies, Lichti is still able to find meaningful work for volunteers. Partnering with the Hope Crisis Response Network, MDS volunteers are helping to finish two houses started by volunteers from that California-based organization.
Mark Cox, Hope Crisis Response Network logistics coordinator in Paradise, said he was looking forward to working with MDS volunteers in the coming months.
“This collaboration is getting people home,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”