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Gateway to home

Christy Brooks and her two kids, who lost their home to the Almeda fire, are the first to transition into Talent’s new Gateway Project
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneChristy Brooks hugs her daughter Alissa Simmons, 6, Monday at their new trailer at the Gateway Project in Talent.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune The Gateway Project has trailers set up for fire victims on 4.3 acres at the corner of Highway 99 and West Valley View Road in Talent.

TALENT — Christy Brooks remembers “hell” on Sept. 8, 2020, when the Almeda fire broke out.

She had just returned home to an RV park in the city after picking up her daughter’s computer for virtual learning. Within five minutes, “everything turned orange and black.” Brooks saw it was a fire, so she grabbed a bag of clothes with her kids and “got out of there.”

The Brooks family did return, however, because Christy wasn’t aware they could get help. Thankfully, a Red Cross team got them out of a decimated and uninhabitable trailer.

The situation at Emigrant Lake, 11 miles south of Talent, did not prove much better. The family had to sleep together to stay warm.

And now, all of that is in the rear-view mirror.

On Monday, Brooks and her children, ages 6 and 12, entered another RV — but not the one they used to know. Their new home is at the Gateway Project, a network of transitional housing meant for families displaced by the fire, and they are the first tenants to move in.

Chad McComas, executive director of Rogue Retreat, the nonprofit that helped make the Gateway Project possible, has not met Christy Brooks yet, but said, “I’m just happy she’s getting in there. I think that’s exciting.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the project a few weeks ago, and it was expected that tenants — Phoenix-Talent families who have children enrolled in the school district — would start moving in around mid-November. Applications to receive a spot at the Gateway are still available.

“We want everybody to know: This isn’t a permanent home — this is a transition,” McComas said. “We’re going to provide a safe place while they now look for a more permanent place.”

He also pledged not to forget about the people who will be residing at Gateway and help them find that permanent housing.

The Gateway Project consists of new, 37-foot-long Palomino Puma travel trailers supplied by the state. The school district and Rogue Retreat had been working to secure donations of recreational vehicles for the site, a little more than four acres of land at the corner of Highway 99 and West Valley View Road.

Up to seven people can sleep in the Puma trailers, which include two bedrooms, bunk beds and convertible sofas — even amenities such as television and Wi-Fi.

The project is meant to bring the local families back into the district full-time. The school district estimated that 696 students and their families were displaced by the fire.

More recently, the district was busing nearly 200 students from Emigrant Lake, White City, Rogue River, Gold Hill and Central Point, where families had found housing.

Tracy Koa, the student and family engagement specialist for the Phoenix-Talent School District, touched on the busing issue and the importance of the Gateway Project in an interview Monday.

“They’re getting on the bus at 6 in the morning, so we want our kids back here at home,” Koa said. “That’s a big push for us.”

But more than that, kids attending Phoenix-Talent schools who live in the new trailers could have “more stability” in their lives than if they resided elsewhere, Koa added.

Koa’s position was created during the current school year. Though all her duties aren’t entirely consumed by the impacts of the fire, it certainly takes up a decent amount of time.

“It definitely adds another layer,” Koa said. “So many families, even pre-fire, had so many challenges. It’s a tough time in the world right now.”

Families who might need clothes or gas money, if they’re living far away, call on assistance from Koa, whose job is to connect them with the right resources. As far as the trailers are concerned, she has made families aware of how to access the Gateway Project’s application — and in some cases she finished and sent it to Rogue Retreat for them.

That’s the kind of help Koa lended to Brooks. She helped the family move, too.

“She was concerned, because she doesn’t drive, that, ‘even if I got in here [to the Gateway Project] how would I move?’ I assured her we’d figure it out — and we did,” Koa said. “She is extremely resilient. She’s just super positive and really great to work with.”

A friend told Brooks about the Gateway Project, and not long after the district told families put up at Emigrant that they would be moving them closer into town.

“I just filled out the application. The school district was amazing,” she said. “They helped push to get us in here as fast as we could. I don’t know any school district that would do this for their families.”

Brooks is impressed with what the trailers have to offer.

“It’s actually more than what I thought it was going to be. I can’t even ...” she said, chuckling in amusement. “I can’t even put it into words how beautiful this place is. It’s wonderful.”

Anyone interested in learning how to apply for housing at the Gateway Project can visit www.rogueretreat.com/housing-programs/talent-gateway/.

The application can be emailed to Office@RogueRetreat.org, mailed to 711 E. Main St., #25, Medford, OR 97504, or submitted to Rogue Retreat’s office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno. Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom contributed to this report.