Community does not burn down
In the face of devastation, people come together to ease suffering and loss
By Sondra Barr, Colorado Springs LIVING WELL Magazine
When the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted, long-time Colorado Springs resident Carol Lyn Lucas had no idea her home of 22 years would soon be gone, one of 346 houses erased from existence.
“To have it wiped out in an afternoon is unfathomable,” explains Lucas, who saw the flames cresting over the mountain towards her home as she fled in a whirl of emotion and adrenaline. “We were running in a panic, my son was yelling, ‘Oh, my god! Oh, my god!”
With only a few possessions that she was able to quickly gather before being evacuated, the mother of three left behind life as she formerly knew it. “Every inch of that house was a loving space I created for my family,” she says. Family heirlooms, antiques, photographs from her 30-year marriage – gone in an instant, never to be replaced. “It’s surreal. Everything that represented my security and stability is totally wiped out of my life.”
Yet, while Lucas may have lost her house, she has gained a newfound respect for a community that she’s called home for so long. In the wake of losing her house, she’s found strength and renewal in the kindness of friends and strangers, along with a fresh perspective from being on the receiving end of charity.
“I feel like a nomad now,” Lucas says. “I’ve cried my eyes out, but the one thing I want to stress is the incredible support of the community.” Within days, her friends had joined together to lend a hand, collecting clothing and donations to present to Lucas and another player in their Life Time Fitness tennis group who’d also lost her home.
Kelly Solomito initially got the ball rolling. “I started sending emails out to a lot of the women we play tennis with,” says Solomito. After learning the two members of the tennis group had lost their homes along with most of their clothing, she asked for clothing and cash donations to buy gift cards for the victims. Explains Solomito, “I thought it might be uplifting to them to have the support of the group and to help them buy things they needed immediately.”
A week and a half later, the tennis group presented Lucas and fellow victim, Marthe Schwartz, gift certificates for $2,000 each at a 60-lady-strong luncheon at a local Mimi’s Cafe. “Mimi’s was wonderful. They put out a special menu for us and bought the two fire victims their meals,” says Solomito, “Since then, I’ve had another $1,000 come in, so they’ll each be getting another $500.” Lucas says she was totally surprised at the group’s generosity because some of the women she’d only played tennis with once, but it was just one of the many unexpected blessings she’s received. Besides the tennis group’s help, other organizations have helped ease the pain in a myriad of ways.
“Mountain Chalet gave away running shoes and clothes two weeks ago and I went over there and got a pair of shoes and I just started crying. I was always on the other side of giving and now someone gives me a pair of shoes,” says Lucas, who experienced a similar feeling while waiting with other victims for food staples at Care and Share Food Bank. “I just couldn’t believe I was in a line like that. I’ve never experienced that in my life,” says Lucas.
According to Shannon Coker, community relations director of Care and Share, the organization has helped many people who’re still in shock that they are now on the receiving end of disaster relief. “These folks are in a position where maybe they’ve never been in, where they’re accepting resources from an organization,” explains Coker. “We try to explain to everyone, this is what the community wants you to have.”
It’s not just the local community that’s pitched in. A two-week disaster relief food drive yielded an astounding 1.6 million pounds of food, some of it sent in from places as far away as Appalachian State University in North Carolina via boxes filled with non-perishable food and toiletries. “To put it into perspective,” says Coker, “Care and Share food drives typically yield about 400,000 pounds of food in a calendar year. This has far exceeded anything we’ve ever dreamt of.”
The day after the fire was at its most ferocious, Care and Share had a mile-long stretch of people standing in front of the facility waiting patiently to donate resources to those affected. It wasn’t just individuals either. Coker recently had a company present a $20,000 check from a company that had matched their nationwide employee donations after one of their local workers lost a home in the fire. “They wanted to do something as an organization to help,” Coker says.
“Care and Share is part of a leadership committee that has been formed representing a bunch of nonprofits in town who’re committed to the long-term recovery for some of these folks who are permanently displaced,” explains Coker. “We’re here to still help people.”
The fire also sparked the idea for Wildfire Tees, colorful t-shirts with inspiring slogans designed to raise money for relief. Local marketer Tucker Wannamaker helped coordinate their efforts in a campaign that went viral overnight. Through the reach of social media, Wildfire Tees has sold over 550,000 shirts to people from around the world. So far, they’ve written two checks for $67,000 each to Care and Share and a Colorado Red Cross chapter. “It’s another avenue for people to help,” emphasizes Wannamaker. “People want to be a part of this outside of just staring at the news and seeing Colorado burn.”
For the minds behind Wildfire Tees, they’re looking forward to the bulk of their next check going towards the state fund for long-term wildfire relief efforts, with additional monies set aside for the more immediate needs of businesses and individuals directly affected by the fire.
“We absolutely want to continue this,” says Wannamaker, who says their goal is transitioning into a disaster t-shirt relief organization. “It was great to give a whole bunch of money away. That felt great.”
While Lucas and her family have a long road towards healing after the harrowing ordeal of losing their safe haven, she realizes without the support of the community her travails would be far greater. Says Lucas, “This community has been unbelievably supportive and kind.”