When Phoenix High junior Caden Gallegos started hearing from friends whose homes had burned down, he decided to head down to the patch of grass next to La-Z-Boy Furniture in Phoenix and hand out water to fire victims. His tiny operation has since expanded to include dozens of boxes and totes full of supplies and is as busy as a flea market.
Ashland High junior Jenna Williams wanted to help but didn’t know how. Then she thought outside the box, recruited two friends and, using her mom’s access to dental supplies, gathered enough items to build 55 bathroom-supply baggies that were distributed to those in need at a local restaurant.
AHS junior Lindsey Jenkins and senior Dillan Anway used a $300 donation to kick-start a drop-off point at Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites that packed the hotel’s second-largest ballroom.
The Almeda fire’s tragic consequences seems to have brought out the best in local philanthropists and do-gooders, and that is also the case with young people throughout the Rogue Valley, many of whom have taken it upon themselves to chip in despite the smoke and a lack of resources.
“It was just amazing to see the amount of support that our community has,” said Ashland High senior Zoe Zapf, 17, one of Williams’ friends who helped package some essential items. “I know we’re a small community but I think we’re pretty mighty, and the fact that we can come together and support each other in a time like this when so many people don’t have anywhere to turn I think is just really amazing.”
Gallegos says his house on Meadow View Drive in south Medford was spared only because firefighters went to war nearby to fend off the Almeda fire, but he understands that not everyone was so lucky. A midfielder for the Phoenix High boys soccer team, Gallegos says he knows of several teammates whose houses were destroyed. That’s why he decided to do what he could, though it didn’t seem like much when he set up shop the day after the fire.
Gallegos’ little water station off Grove Road behind La-Z-Boy Furniture quickly expanded, however, as his classmates, teammates and passersby followed his example. When somebody dropped off some clothes, Gallegos and his friend, Cameron Redmond, looked at each other and said, “OK, let’s start taking clothes then.”
“I was posting a lot of it (on social media), trying to push it, telling other families that were in need to come here,” he said. “Basically, that was it. It just kind of went crazy.”
The pile of clothes eventually became unmanageable, but Home Depot donated about a dozen large totes, which were quickly filled. Now, Gallegos and seven of his friends are managing the giveaway corner and plan to continue doing so through Saturday and possibly longer.
“It’s just a miracle,” Gallegos said. “They did the deed of bringing me stuff that I could give to the people. Because I just want to make it an option for people who couldn’t get out to The Expo or anywhere farther.”
Williams, Zapf and AHS junior Grace Smith were brainstorming ways to help two days after the fire when it occurred to them that, since Williams’ mom is a dental hygienist, they may have enough toothbrushes, toothpaste and other everyday essentials on hand to make a few care packages. They had more than that, as it turned out — toothbrushes and toothpaste, yes, but also dental floss, chapstick, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, a couple shaving kits, bath salts and shower caps.
The three classmates set up an assembly line on Williams’ living room floor and went to work packaging up the goods. After the girls had finished they weren’t sure what to do with the 55 bags, so they called Trish Dorr, a teacher at Ashland’s Helman Elementary School who has emerged as another leader in the local recovery effort. Dorr told them to take their bags to El Tapatio, a Mexican restaurant at the north end of Ashland that had already set up a drop-off point with a focus on displaced farm workers.
“They quickly took them and sorted them out and had them ready for people to pick up,” added Williams, who said she became emotional when she first witnessed the destructive path the fire took through several mobile home parks.
Zapf said it was important for her to find a way to help.
“It’s part of our community and our people and our hometown who need us, so it was just kind of a no-brainer,” she said. “It was like, this is something that needs to happen and the faster we can get these supplies to them, the faster they’ll be able to get back on their feet. And I know what we did was such a small part of it — I mean, really minuscule. But I think that everything that every person does counts a lot.”
Dorr is helping to organize the Ashland School District’s response. The district has set up a centralized drop-off point at Ashland High School, where dozens of tables in the Mountain Avenue Theatre — both upstairs and downstairs — are covered end to end with food, clothing and other supplies (it’ll be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Sunday). A dry-erase board in front of the building announces the day’s biggest needs. Camp stoves, cookware, diapers and toilet paper were hot items Monday.
Two Ashland Middle School eighth-graders, Olive English and Nikaela Apilada, showed up Monday to see if they could help, because why not.
“There’s not much for us to do but we’re looking,” Apilada said as she browsed the makeshift aisles.
The AHS site has become part of a supply chain that funnels items to the Phoenix-Talent School District’s main distribution point at Orchard Hill Elementary, where the gym has been transformed into one of Southern Oregon’s largest giveaway centers outside of The Expo.
Dorr reached out to Phoenix High teacher Carolena Campbell, who helps manage the Orchard Hill site, and together they devised a system to restock Orchard Hill throughout each day. Some local students help keep things organized and running smoothly, Campbell said, and everybody’s kept busy during its noon to 4 p.m. operating hours.
“We’re trying to make it a one-stop shop,” Campbell said. “We’ve got hopefully pretty much any supply anybody would need, and we’ve been providing meals — lunches, breakfasts, trying to get people out with cases of water. People are eager to help, they want to help. So we most days have had more volunteers that we even have jobs for but I think it’s nice; it’s a healing environment. It feels good to be in a place that good things are happening.”
Jenkins was hanging out with some family friends last Thursday night, two days after the fire, talking about what the destruction might mean for the community when one of the friends gave her $300 to start her own little relief project. Jenkins reached out to dozens of friends from Ashland High and North Medford High asking for donations, then texted Anway, whose dad, Don Anway, is the chief operating officer of Ashland Hills Hotel & Suites. Dillan Anway asked his dad if they could use one of the hotel’s meeting rooms as a donation site. Dad answered, “Heck, yeah,” so the high-schoolers took over the south Ashland hotel’s 2,500-square-foot Cosmos Ballroom and quickly filled it up.
They advertised what they were trying to do via social media and those posts were heavily shared, Anway said. Before long, displaced families on that side of town knew where they could stock up on at least a few of the necessities they lost in the fire.
“Ashland’s always been a community that’s really supported people who are in need, and that really showed,” Anway said. “Ashland and some of the outside resources, they really pulled through for the people who needed help.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.