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Latter-day Saints Learning to Heal Through Service After Almeda Fire in Oregon

About two dozen members of the Medford Oregon Stake work around the yard of the Phoenix Counseling Center on Saturday, September 18, 2021. They responded to a JustServe service project with United Way to help rebuild after the 2020 Almeda Fire. Photo by Heidi Blue, courtesy of Church News. All rights reserved.

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By Mary Richards, Church News

For some survivors of the Almeda Fire in Oregon, it feels like the nation quickly moved on from the September 2020 devastation while they are still rebuilding their lives and remembering the trauma of fleeing the flames.

But Church members — many of whom also lost a lot in the wildfire — are learning that through service, they can find healing for themselves and be a source of healing to others. They continue to participate in service projects for areas burned by the flames, befriend others in their community and look for ways to reach out as Christ would.

Service in the Rain

Shoes squelched and water dripped down their clothes as two dozen volunteers hauled rocks, spread gravel, built a fence, and planted shrubs and flowers. They moved a canopy from place to place as they worked, but it couldn’t keep everyone dry.

“Rain — pouring down rain — but it was the most fun activity we’ve had in JustServe,” said Heidi Blue, the JustServe specialist for the Medford Oregon Stake.

Members of the stake were serving at the Phoenix Counseling Center in Phoenix, Oregon, that day. The center’s yard burned in the Almeda Fire in September 2020. The fire burned 2,500 homes and more than 170 businesses. Many victims of the fire were reminded of all that was lost when they had to walk past the burned landscaping to enter the center for counseling.

Medford Oregon Stake members and JustServe volunteers move gravel around the yard of the Phoenix Counseling Center in Phoenix, Oregon, on Saturday, September 18, 2021, for the United Way Day of Caring. The center’s yard was burned in the Almeda Fire a year prior. Photo by Heidi Blue, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

In a matter of hours on September 18, 2021, the volunteers had the center’s yard all done, with a new fence, new plants and gravel to complete the landscaping. Blue said even in the rain, the Church members were smiling, laughing and having a good time as they worked alongside the counseling center staff.

“They were just overwhelmed by the feeling of hope that we can rebuild, we can get past this and have a really good life,” she said. “Even though things might seem dark and damaged and destroyed, there can be growth there and beauty. There’s this hope for good things to come.”

The service project was listed on JustServe.org as part of the United Way Day of Caring. United Way of Jackson County CEO Dee Anne Everson called the Church members “community rock stars” for their service that day.

“It was awful weather. Every other team canceled except for the [Latter-day Saints]. Because they are there for us and our community, without question,” Everson said.

A Unique Missionary Service

Everson has a great appreciation for the Church not just because of the rainy service project last September but also because of a certain young man who served beside her every day for a year and a half.

Then-Elder Seth Cannon began a service mission for the Church at United Way in August 2020. He was going to learn about different aspects of the work done by the social services organization.

But when the Almeda Fire hit, Everson gave Cannon a key role in the disaster response and asked him to review applications for aid under United Way’s fire relief program. The missionary did it for the next year and a half, extending his mission by six months.

He reviewed more than 860 applications and personally interviewed more than 165 people in needs-assessment phone calls. He talked to people who had lost everything.

“The calls were really, really hard. And Seth was amazing, he handled those,” Everson said. “Thank goodness he is a person of faith because that’s how I got through all the work I did on the fires. It provided the strength I needed to get through, and I know it was that way for him as well.”

Cannon said his assignment was unlike anything he expected or thought a mission could be. “There were certainly times when I thought I couldn’t handle any more tough stories, but getting to wake up and spend all day at United Way helping fire survivors was a true gift,” he told the Church News.

Cannon is now attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Everson said everyone in her organization will be his friend for life because of his service.

She hopes more young adults choose a service mission. “Our community is only better for good young people,” she said. “My life is so much better for knowing Seth.”

Seth Cannon of Medford, Oregon, served a service mission with United Way of Jackson County for a year and a half, starting in August 2020. He was tapped for a key role in interviewing survivors of the Almeda Fire to determine fire relief funding, thus saving the United Way from spending money on a full-time staffer. Photo courtesy of Seth Cannon, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

‘We All Work Together’

Blue said Cannon’s mission connects with the mission of JustServe. “We all work together, that’s the joy of it, that’s the beauty of this program,” Blue said. “It doesn’t stand alone. It’s coupled with everyone else helping. It’s unified — community, missionary work and JustServe. We are there to help and everyone is willing. We all have a part to play.”

Everson and the United Way of Jackson County now uses JustServe more to get help for their efforts: “JustServe is a really great website where nonprofits can log in and put in what they need for service projects and volunteers in our community. Anyone can access it and sign up for a project. We are really honored to be on the site.”

Cannon was there with other missionaries and Church members on the Day of Caring last September, moving wet gravel and painting fences. But he said members of the Church also helped in the recovery effort in less recognizable ways, and they continue to “pour their whole hearts, might, minds and strength into helping with the recovery.”

Everson said a lot of work still remains for their area to recover from the Almeda Fire, but it’s hard because people forget as new disasters strike. “I think often we want to believe that we can do this more quickly, but it’s a long road,” she said. “People are traumatized. They literally ran from flames with very little warning, it moved so fast.”

Cannon said anyone interested in helping can donate to local organizations or contact their local leaders to find out what the current needs are. “I know several families who have taken individual fire survivor families under their wings and have supported them throughout the entire recovery process, which seems like the exact thing Christ would be doing if He were here.”

Canopies keep the rain off some of the JustServe volunteers building a new fence around the Phoenix Counseling Center in Phoenix, Oregon, on Saturday, September 18, 2021, for the United Way Day of Caring. The center’s yard and fence were burned in the Almeda Fire the year before. Photo by Heidi Blue, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

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