Imagine all of Roseburg, and Green, burned to the ground. Houses, businesses, schools. And all the people who didn’t have family or connections somewhere else are left with nothing but maybe the family car, if they’re lucky, or the clothes on their back. Living under donated tarps in parking lots in a neighboring town.
That’s the scale of the devastation in Paradise, California, since the Camp Fire, said Roseburg resident Al Jenkins.
A month ago, Jenkins started collecting stuff like tents and tarps and sleeping bags, camp stoves and canned foods, and most of all cash. On Nov. 13, he drove it down to Chico, California, where many of those former Paradise residents are camping, and just gave it all away.
On Saturday, he left for his fourth trip, this time to Oroville, California.
Altogether, he estimates he’s given out 2,800 pounds of supplies and about $3,000 in cash. Donations have come from friends and friends of friends. His cousin Allen Guse, who lives in Deadwood near Florence, stepped up and started collecting donations from Lane County individuals, the Swisshome Evangelical Church and the Lake Creek Bible Chapel. Donations also came from the nonprofit Siuslaw Institute. Jenkins started a Facebook fundraising page that has so far brought in more than $6,000. Most donors are local, but a few have come from as far away as Minnesota and Chicago.
Down in California, Jenkins made connections with other volunteers, and ran into about 20 other individuals doing the same thing he is.
“You pull into little tent cities, and some of them are organized where they’ve set up a mess tent or they’re trying to cook for them, and they’ve got a tent where people can come in and get clothes. But the thing that really, really got to me was how many people are just sleeping on the ground with a tarp over them. And when it rained, they got muddy,” he said.
Jenkins is concentrating on collecting tents, air mattresses and cots — anything that will keep people off the ground. He also brings pop-top canned foods like chili and ravioli, pet food and tools. This time, he’s bringing pocket toys, too, so kids waiting in long lines for aid have something to play with. He said clothing donations aren’t needed, because the relief organizations are overwhelmed with the amount they’re receiving.
On his first trip, Jenkins learned there are carpenters and mechanics among the refugees, but they’ve lost the tools of their trades.
“One fellow was a mechanic, and he didn’t have a screwdriver but he’s sitting in this parking lot with 300 other people that had cars that needed repairs. But he didn’t have anything to fix them with, so I just gave him all the tools I had,” he said.
The next trip, Jenkins brought more tools and gave a bunch of them to a general contractor, who said, “Wow, I can start helping other people now.”
Jenkins said the contractor hugged him and started sobbing. His family was in the relief center getting some clothes, and when they came out “he just wiped the tears away and said, ‘I can’t let them see me cry because then they’ll be afraid.’”
Another family he met was a woman and her 9-year-old daughter. The girl had blisters on her feet.
“They got caught in the fire. Her daughter was barefoot. They got out of their house, but she didn’t get shoes on. Her feet were burnt from the pavement,” he said.
The fire also melted the taillights of their car as they drove through flames to escape the destruction of Paradise. They had been living for two weeks under a tarp. The only thing she asked Jenkins for was shoes for her daughter.
“I gave her a tent and tarp, air mattresses and a stove, everything she needed to set up camp. And I gave her 120 bucks so she could go buy things,” he said.
He also recalled an elderly woman who was sitting and waiting three hours for a ride from one of the relief center volunteers. She had a motel voucher and had received things from the aid workers, so he didn’t focus on her at first. He had given most of his donations away before he thought to ask her if she needed a ride or anything else. She insisted she needed nothing. He gave her the last of his cash, $27, anyway. And as he walked away he heard her whisper, “God is great.” As he was leaving, he heard her say it louder.
“It was pretty touching, pretty amazing,” he said.
One of the things that impressed him was the volunteers at the donation center in Oroville, where he saw a young man from a Baptist church next to a woman wearing a turban, who he thought might be a Sikh, and a guy wearing tie-dye next to a guy wearing a cowboy hat. Nobody was talking politics or religion. People who probably don’t agree on anything else agreed that they needed to help people, he said.
“All that’s been dropped for now. Ideally, it would be that way forever,” he said.
Jenkins can be reached at 541-580-7707.