Young missionary vital to fire recovery
When South Medford High School graduate Seth Cannon took a break from college to serve a mission with United Way of Jackson County, he quickly got thrown into an adult role heavy with responsibility.
Cannon started his service mission through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in August 2020. The plan was for him to learn about different aspects of the work done by United Way, a social services organization.
Then the Almeda fire hit Sept. 8, 2020, and burned 2,500 homes and more than 170 businesses, primarily in Phoenix and Talent. More than 4,000 people instantly became homeless, and many lost their jobs.
The United Way tapped Cannon for a key role in the disaster response.
“He became our fire program manager because we desperately needed help,” said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County.
United Way set up a fire relief program to take in and distribute donations to help fire survivors. But it needed someone to sift through the mountain of aid requests, review documentation and make sure requests were legitimate — and not from fraudsters trying to take advantage of the disaster.
“He reviewed every single application for funding over the next year and a half. There were more than 860 applications,” Everson said.
Facing story after story of loss wasn’t easy, but it had to be done.
“I was really grateful to know that because of all the donations we received, we would be able to help a lot of them,” Cannon said. “But there’s a whole bunch of needs that we haven’t been able to meet yet. It was really tough to look through these families and households who had lost absolutely everything and are trying to somehow rebuild their lives after this disaster.”
Now a junior, Cannon has returned to college at Brigham Young University in Utah, but he continues to volunteer for United Way remotely. He spoke by phone to the Mail Tribune.
Cannon said he worked to maintain a positive attitude about the efforts of the United Way. Even if the nonprofit couldn’t solve all of a displaced family’s problems, it could help with some. A broad range of other organizations and government agencies have also stepped up.
“It was not easy. I felt pretty overwhelmed because I am just this 21-year-old kid who’s trying to figure out the best way for us to be able to help these families. Some of the stories are pretty heart-breaking,” he said. “But I just had to keep on reminding myself that we’re going to recover from this disaster one family at a time. It may not be everything that they need, but we can fill one small need for one family. If we do that enough, we’ll eventually be fully recovered from this fire.”
Everson said Cannon also did more than 160 interviews with survivors to assess the full scale of their needs and losses. Each interview can last an hour.
People suffered not only financial hits from the fire, but the death of pets and the loss of irreplaceable belongings such as photo albums, wedding dresses and handmade quilts. Being interviewed can bring up those sad memories, Everson said.
“It’s grueling. We have to do everything we can to not secondarily traumatize them all over again. We also don’t want to traumatize our staff and volunteers,” she said.
Cannon had to be sensitive and supportive during the interviews, Everson said.
“He’s a young man and he shouldered all that,” she said.
Cannon not only helped fire survivors, he did public service announcements about suicide prevention and awareness. The videos offer hope and publicize the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
“He is such a gift to this world,” Everson said.
Cannon was originally scheduled to serve a one-year mission with the United Way, but he extended his mission by six months to keep helping, Everson said.
A service mission is an alternative to the better-known proselytizing missions carried out by young men and women for the LDS church.
Young people on service missions usually live at home and volunteer in their own communities, often with local organizations. Their missions have included feeding homeless people, helping special needs children, volunteering in food pantries and teaching English to refugees and helping them gain citizenship, according to the LDS church.
Service missions last six to 18 months for women and six to 24 months for men, the church said.
For proselytizing missions, people are sent across the U.S. and around the world. They knock on doors and meet with people to spread the word about the LDS church and its beliefs.
In some parts of the world, missionaries serve only on humanitarian missions and don’t proselytize, the LDS church said.
Everson, who doesn’t belong to the church, said she knew about LDS proselytizing missions but hadn’t heard about service missions.
“It was amazing to see him in service to his faith and his community for 18 months,” she said about Cannon.
Neither service missionaries nor proselytizing missionaries are paid, the LDS church said.
Everson said having Cannon volunteer as the United Way’s fire program manager meant more donations could go toward fire survivors. United Way didn’t have to hire a staff person to take on that job.
The United Way initially provided money to help people get through the immediate aftermath of the fire, then shifted its focus to transitional aid and permanent resettlement needs. Lately, it’s provided aid for everything from car repairs to fixing a well to buying windows and a door for a home to paying the costs of moving a trailer.
Everson said Cannon wrote a fire recovery report about the progress the community has made so far, and is wrapping up another report about assistance the United Way has provided during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December, United Way named Cannon as one of 10 Everyday Heroes for 2021. The recognition honors Jackson County residents who are helping others individually, at work or through service organizations.
Back at BYU, Cannon is picking up where he left off.
“It’s definitely a bit of an adjustment to try and remember everything I learned a few years ago,” he said. “But I wouldn’t change anything. I was really glad I was able to take that break and go serve United Way.”
Cannon said his time at United Way gave him more appreciation for people who spend their whole careers working for nonprofit groups. The tough work can lead to burnout. He’s majoring in economics and doesn’t believe he’ll go into the nonprofit sector himself, but he does want to use his degree to help communities.
“One thing I have realized is just how amazing these local organizations are. I’ve been able to work with absolutely amazing people. To see them pour their whole lives into this work made me a lot more willing to donate to these same organizations later in my life,” he said.
Cannon said he hopes more young people on LDS service missions can team up with organizations like the United Way that help communities.
“I’m really grateful for them. Dee Anne Everson and the other staff at United Way are a powerful force for good. I’m really grateful they’re willing to let me spend some time with them and learn from them,” he said. “I hope other nonprofit organizations will be willing to let a service missionary volunteer with them for a while because I think it can be beneficial for everyone involved.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.