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Family grapples with Almeda aftermath

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneRebecca Lopez, 22, and her family lost everything in the Almeda fire.

Editor’s note: Light One Candle is an annual series sponsored by the Mail Tribune that focuses on an individual, group or agency who could use a helping hand during the holiday season. Once that need is filled, donations may be distributed to others in need.

A job once symbolized Rebecca Lopez’s drive to become independent.

But since last year’s Almeda fire consumed her family’s residence, the 22-year-old who experiences autism yearns to join the workforce and bolster her family’s savings toward a home.

“She wants to help,” said Rebecca’s mother, Cirila Lopez.

“To get a house,” interjected her daughter. “I don’t like to live in a small house.”

Sheltering the family of five for the past year, a cramped travel trailer inhibits Rebecca’s full participation in online dance and fitness classes through Medford’s Pathway Enterprises. A recent graduate of Ashland School District’s Inspire Transition Program, Rebecca is building on skills she learned in high school while strengthening peer relationships and making broader community connections through Pathway, said Robin Reames, the organization’s community education coordinator.

“Rebecca is truly remarkable,” said Reames. “Even though she lost everything in the Almeda fire, she has strong family support.”

The family, however, is stretched to cover basic living costs while saving for a manufactured home to replace the one burned in Ashland’s Bear Creek Mobile Home Park, where a large group of residents are in similar circumstances. Many elderly or low-income, those displaced residents were underinsured or didn’t have insurance.

Rebecca’s family fled the fire with some important documents and a few pieces of clothing. Disaster relief efforts housed them in an Ashland hotel for three months, and they received meal donations from community groups. Expressing gratitude for kindness and generosity during the region’s crisis, the Lopezes still grapple with increased costs for housing and scant inventory of manufactured homes.

“Constantly, she asks us when are we going to have our new house,” said Cirila, who works for Southern Oregon Head Start.

Initially calm in the wake of tragedy, Rebecca gradually came to terms with losing her belongings, including her favorite girly shoes, blue with pink bows. Although she evacuated alongside her family Sept. 8. 2020, helping neighbors to cross the creek, Rebecca needed frequent reminders that the family’s living environment and daily routine were forever changed.

“She didn’t seem to understand that the house was gone and we couldn’t go back,” said Rebecca’s sister, Miriam Lopez, 25.

Reflecting momentarily on feelings of sadness and depression following the fire, Rebecca’s mood immediately soars when she thinks about the next Marvel movie to hit theaters. Medford’s Tinseltown is among potential employers that Rebecca visited with support from Pathway’s vocational exploration program. Longing to work as a barista, Rebecca also has met with managers at some local coffeehouses and grocers. She confidently uses the local bus system but is studying to get a DMV instruction permit.

“Rebecca has been very proactive in advocating for herself,” said Reames. “Her ultimate dream is to attend college.”

“I might go to RCC,” said Rebecca, adding that maybe she could attend school in another state, although her family has concerns over her access to special education services, including instructional aides. Highly motivated to learn, Rebecca leased a laptop to take Pathway classes, said Reames, and attends three days per week without any assistance while her family are away from home working.

“Like everybody else, she has the same dreams,” said Miriam.

And like many of her peers, Rebecca loves doing “girl things,” including painting her nails and getting her hair done, said Reames. Art, fashion and decorating engage Rebecca’s creativity. Very petite, she wears a juniors size small, women’s size 7 or 7-1/2 shoes, and she loves putting together new outfits.

Enjoying a strong circle of friends from school and church, Rebecca would be thrilled with gift cards to local movie theaters or coffee shops. These activities and outings would bring her joy as she faces some of her family’s challenges and aspires to adult independence.

To help, email Reames at rreames@pathway-inc.org or call 541-840-3123.

Read stories in the annual Light One Candle series at mailtribune.com/news/light-one-candle/. See Monday’s e-edition for the story of a family of seven working with CASA of Jackson County.