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Oregon’s Relief Society Joins Community in Service After Worst Fire Season on Record

‘Miracle workers’ bless their neighbors during wildfires

Members of the Relief Society organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oregon have joined forces with local service organizations to help their fellow congregants and community members after fires destroyed thousands of homes in early September.

                                                                              

“I had my 17-year-old daughter go to all the neighbors around just [to] see if they were all okay and if they had an evacuation plan,” said Kristie Olsen, a counselor in the Relief Society presidency of the Lincoln City congregation on the Oregon coast.

Olsen recalls that when the windstorm started blowing fire toward her coastal neighborhood, it caught many neighbors by surprise.

“One of the sweet older ladies in the neighborhood — she didn't even realize there was a fire,” said Olsen. “She was like, ‘Evacuation for what?’ She goes, ‘I just thought it was a cloudy day.’”

From knocking on people’s doors to ensure a timely evacuation to organizing much-needed donations for fire survivors, Latter-day Saint women in Oregon, and members of the Relief Society (one of the world’s largest organizations for women), have found ways to work with the community and lift their neighbors impacted by the worst fire season on record.

Hollie Nightingale, Relief Society president of the same congregation, said she contributed what she could to help anyone in need.

“The first thing I did was open my home to families that had been evacuated,” said Nightingale.

She explained that soon after that, she, Olsen and other Church leaders united to contact every member of their congregation

and check on their well-being.

“Do an assessment of how they're doing physically, spiritually, emotionally, temporally — and to see where they're willing to help and where they needed help,” shared Nightingale. “And so, a lot of phone calls and then a lot of time spent with the stake Relief Society president, ordering food.”

In southern Oregon, more than 2,300 houses were lost because of the fast-spreading fire, including Misty Pantle’s home in the community of Talent, where she, her three children and her sister have lived for nearly five years.

“It's mixed emotions. Honestly, it's hard when you come back to the site and you try to reimagine what it was and you start to recall things that you've lost,” said Pantle.

She explained that because of the pandemic, her teenage children were taking classes online when they realized the fire was spreading around them.

“They were in the fourth class of the day when everybody started to get offline because everything was going up in flames,” she said.

Since then, Pantle explained, her family has moved into a small apartment and now face the challenge of figuring out what’s next.

“When we purchased our home, prices were more in our favor,” she said. “Right now, it will be really expensive for us to rebuild. So we're trying to consider what that means, you know? Does that mean that we buy a home and renovate? Or do we rebuild on our plot of land, or do we rebuild someplace else?”

Amid the challenges, Pantle shared that after the fire, she and her family witnessed small miracles unfold because of fellow Latter-day Saints.

“We were pulled to go stay with people who really care for us, and they allowed us to stay in their home for a little over two weeks until we could get into our apartment,” said Pantle.

Pantle said that in addition to providing temporary shelter and stabilizing their makeshift beds, her Relief Society president served them in a special way.

Oregon Fires
Latter-day Saint volunteers sift through the burned remnants of sisters Misty Pantle and Tammy Johnson's home to search for personal belongings in Talent, Ore., on Saturday, September 19, 2020. 2020 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
                    

    “She made us bread,” she said. “It's simple, but it tasted even more delicious because we knew it came with just love, baked with love. So the true spirit of ministering has been taking place. I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”

“I have been so impressed with the goodness and the quality of the ministry here. Nobody is without a roof right now; nobody is without food right now,” said Elder David L. Wright, an Area Seventy in Oregon.

Relief Society Member in Lincoln City Organizes Donation Center

Oregon Fires
Norma Jean Washburn, a Latter-day Saint from Lincoln City, Oregon, an area where about 300 homes were destroyed by wildfires, is surrounded by donations that she and her friend collected and are distributing to help with recovery efforts in September 2020. 2020 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
                                                                                        

 While local Relief Society leaders reach out to Latter-day Saints, Relief Society members like Norma Jean Washburn from Lincoln City, an area where about 300 homes were destroyed, also found a way to serve their neighbors in a smaller, yet meaningful way. In mid-September, Washburn called her friend Dawn Villaescusa to help her set up a donation center in nearby Otis, which was close to the area hit hard by the fires.

“I started talking to friends and [realizing] that they were going to need to do something,” said Washburn, who, with the help of other volunteers, led the organizing effort for the center in the Grange building, to provide food, clothing and other supplies for people in need.

“There's no organization out here that's going to create a distribution center,” she added, referring to the need to provide supplies in an area closer to people who lost homes.

“We need to do it out here, where it's ground zero, where everybody is, where everybody lives, where there's the biggest need,” she said.

The women collect and distribute clothing, food, toys, cleaning supplies and bedding at no cost to people who visit the donation center.

“We just opened up five days ago,” said Villaescusa. “The first couple of days, it was word of mouth, and we didn't have too many families. Today, we had 19 families.”

“We’ve had people come and ask us what organization this is,” added Villaescusa. “It’s not one; it’s just your next-door neighbor.”

“It makes you tear up a little bit, just that people are so generous and kind and it doesn't matter. You don’t know who they're affiliated with or anything; it's just people that drop everything and come to help,” shared Washburn.

“We kind of agreed between the two of us, ‘Well, we'll do this [for] a month,’ and then if people still need us, then we'll still be here,” she added.

"It's just really important as a community to stay here," shared Villaescusa.

Church Leaders Express Gratitude for Opportunity to Serve Alongside Community Groups

                         Ron Chandler, a Latter-day Saint bishop over the Lincoln City congregation, which covers approximately half of Lincoln County, explained that about one-third of the Church members whom he leads were impacted by the fires. Bishop Chandler is also the city

manager in Lincoln City.

“We had seven [member] homes that were lost and 27 [member homes] that were evacuated,” said Bishop Chandler, who also shared his gratitude that no lives were lost.

Once local entities gave community members the green light to go back, Bishop Chandler says that Latter-day Saints, local organizations, faith-based entities and residents went to work.

“The community itself has been truly amazing, as other civic organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, Eagles, churches, the Baptist church [and] so many businesses have stepped up to help,” he said. “We determined with the stake that what we really needed to do was to bring food and water into the areas where people were coming back.”

In addition to distributing items donated by residents, the bishops’ storehouse also delivered food products, including cereals and canned goods like puddings, pears and peaches.

                                                                 

“We knew that some members whose homes had not been burned were not going to accept [donations]. So the instructions we gave [to volunteers] were if there's somebody else in the neighborhood that needs it, give those to them,” said Bishop Chandler.

“We've been very blessed. The Lord has blessed us tremendously, and mostly we have been blessed through just the miracle workers of our members,” he added.

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