Home, Sweet Home:

Tzu Chi’s Long-Term Camp Fire Recovery Continues

Written by Christina Chang & Adriana DiBenedetto 
Translated by H.B. Qin

Organizations work together to assist Camp Fire survivors in Concow and extend their best wishes at the dedication ceremony for the completed homes. Photo/Rong Changming

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Gazing up at their new home in Concow, a small community in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, Teri and John Rubiolo expressed their heartfelt thanks to several organizations, including Tzu Chi USA, for their assistance during a three-year-long home replacement project.

After the Camp Fire, Tzu Chi Northwest, Tzu Chi Chico, and the Camp Fire Collaborative began organizing the funds and logistics for getting wildfire survivors manufactured homes. And, at the long-awaited dedication ceremony on March 25, 2022, Tzu Chi volunteers in Northern California, alongside more than 60 representatives from community and religious organizations, gathered in the remote area.

It’s very important to be able to partner with other [groups and] agencies. There are so many great agencies that we didn’t really know very much about in-depth in this recovery process before, but with this engagement, we are humbled as well. Partnership and collaboration are definitely something that’s very crucial to helping survivors, and that’s why we continue to explore that. [...] But we are very determined; we want to overcome the challenges, and to find the best way that Tzu Chi can help in this recovery process. And I appreciate that I have a great team.

Minjhing Hsieh
Executive Director
Tzu Chi volunteers in Northern California travel to Concow, CA, to offer housewarming gifts to Camp Fire survivors who now have a brand new place to call home. A framed Jing Si Aphorism reads, “A willing and giving heart has unlimited potential.” Photo/Changming Rong

“In long-term recovery disaster casework for the Camp Fire, truly, we’re here for the long haul,” expressed Tzu Chi Disaster Case Manager Baba Kauna Mujamal. “But in the process of that, we have been doing distribution setups in regards to providing support to survivors, to truly deal with a lot of trauma. And, to connect them to resources that are available to them financially, as well as emotional support, along with support around rebuilding.” 

The Camp Fire had ignited on Thursday, November 8, 2018, in Northern California, and Tzu Chi USA’s disaster response was swift. Upon seeing the scale of the disaster, Tzu Chi immediately launched its “Hope Heals” campaign, seeking to provide effective cash relief to affected families by raising donations from 10,000 people, and directly funding cash cards for 10,000 Camp Fire survivors before Christmas. 

Tzu Chi volunteers have been aiding Camp Fire impacted communities ever since through our long-term relief, and by collaborating with local relief organizations as one fervent pulse until families could rebuild their lives on the soil where their homes originally stood. 

These three Concow homes for Camp Fire affected families had been built over three years, and all wished to be there for survivors as they toured the new homes featuring bedrooms, bathrooms, a full kitchen, and ample living space.

Tzu Chi volunteers enter the Caldor Fire area to assess the situation. Photo/Judy Liao
Teri Rubiolo cooks meals in the converted kitchen every day to assist her neighbors. Photo/Wanjie Lu

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Each household also received special gifts from Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region Executive Director Hsieh and the Tzu Chi Disaster Case Management Team. The items included Jing Si multipurpose foldable beds, a wooden charm with the Chinese symbol for happiness, Jing Si multigrain powder, a Jing Si Aphorism book, a framed aphorism, eco-blankets, cherry tree saplings, and more. 

Although only three families agreed to the donated houses this time, it is a very important milestone, and it’s completed with the cooperation of many units.

Minjhing Hsieh
Executive Director
Tzu Chi USA Northwest Region

“I believe this is a new endeavor for many of us because it does require a very different effort than relief,” explained  Hsieh with regards to long-term recovery, and with a disaster of such scope. “Because we’re dealing with the system, we’re dealing with the process, and we’re dealing with the very precious resources, and of course, a lot of very unique, different cases. That’s why our team is called the Disaster Case Management Team.” The team tends to every case, each with distinct challenges and situations, to advocate for everyone — connecting people to the system and to essential resources.  

The Rubiolos Gave It Their All

Teri and John Rubiolo lived in Concow after retirement. The 2018 Camp Fire had destroyed their belongings, but not their dedication to the community. After the wildfire, when they were able to return to the area, limited insurance claims were just enough to purchase a recreational vehicle as a temporary residence. 

We looked at the funds we had because we had a little bit of insurance money, but not much. Not enough to rebuild, not enough to do anything. And we talked about it, and we said, ‘we’re just gonna put this into helping the community do what the community needs to help regroup and get back on their feet.

Teri Rubiolo

They converted a used trailer into a kitchen, the open space out front offering a place to rest for families who were temporarily staying in tents and provided two free hot meals daily. 

After the disaster, the couple’s efforts counted on the support of charity organizations. When Tzu Chi volunteers learned about Teri’s situation, they provided long-term post-disaster material assistance. Volunteers also visited frequently to care for Teri and the local community’s needs. 

In November of 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers hold a winter distribution in Concow, and Teri Rubiolo happily reunites with Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Christina Chang

At the end of 2019, Tzu Chi volunteers held a winter distribution in Concow. When Teri received the cash card and eco-blanket offered by volunteers, she expressed, “Tzu Chi is a very special organization to me. The attitude of Tzu Chi volunteers made me feel comfortable.”  

Applying for reconstruction permits had been a complicated process, as financial trouble arose without proof of income. “The biggest part of rebuilds has to do with paperwork,” Disaster Case Manager Baba Kauna Mujamal said. “It was about pulling receipts for those who still had receipts and pulling bank statements, all kinds of things. […] That whole process, to me, was the foundation. And then, on top of that, there was some funding that came through Tzu Chi in regards to a family that was also feeding the community. And a suggestion that came from Tzu Chi was to help her get a much better storage system to help her process to go out a lot longer, and Tzu Chi was able to pull the funding resources towards that, along with meeting with Mennonite Disaster Relief, and going out to all the meetings to help get all three homes connected with the right resources to make sure that the process would be done.” 

Then, new wildfires struck twice, forcing the evacuation of residents from the area again. Furthermore, during the most critical stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns led to a pause in construction. 

“No one was prepared for COVID amongst the process of dealing with the issues that were at hand in regards to getting a home,” Baba Kauna Mujamal explained. “So there were some major, major, major delays. And these families have been waiting, I mean, literally three years, and even during that time, we continued to maintain contact, and maintain our relationship, in the process, just to be there for them regardless.” 

But, “Love reigns over everything,” Baba continued, “so throughout these entire three years, and despite all the challenges that were being presented, naturally by COVID-19, and delays, and people not being able to come to work because they had COVID-19, or prices went up, we were consistent throughout the entire time.” 

With help, everyone gathered in front of the Rubiolos’ new home in the spring of 2022. The newly built house stands encircled by grass and trees, with forest-green exterior walls against crisp, white window frames.  

The small trailer where Teri cooked for their neighbors is in the open space next to the house. In the past three years, Teri’s “I AM’s GARDEN” program provided free meals to nearly 300 households every month on average. The total number of meals provided is more than 10,000.

Located just behind the Rubiolos’ new home, a green storage space completed with the assistance of Tzu Chi functions as a simple distribution center for the community. Photo/Christina Chang

Behind the trailer is a small, green, metal storage space completed with the assistance of Tzu Chi volunteers, where Teri stores various donated materials, and operates as a simple distribution center. When neighbors come to pick up meals, they can also bring back daily necessities. The new home and storage space gave Teri and John a place to settle down and bolstered their capacity to help the community with peace of mind. 

John, who had chronic leg pain and still needed surgery at the time, rested near the front door of their new house and recalled the many meals the pair had served after the fire. In the beginning, he’d had neither a refrigerator to store perishable food nor a table, and ate the dinner cooked by his family with a group of neighbors he didn’t know but who were also affected by the disaster. Now that they have a new home, John looked to his wife, Teri, and said, “Here we go again,” his voice full of emotion. 

When Teri spoke about her efforts to assist survivors in the community, she mentioned that while the free meal project may be limited, it’s been a huge undertaking for the older couple who are both Camp Fire survivors themselves. Teri expressed her appreciation to the organizations present on the day of their official moving-in, expressing how the help has made their efforts grow and expand. And with the resources provided, they hope every daily necessity in the community can be met. “God has brought me each and every one of the people we need to not just do what we’re doing, but to grow in, and fill in, more and more for the community and to be accessible to them,” said Teri. 

Smiles filled the small community that day, and the spring sunshine, along with the soft and gentle breeze across the hilly landscape, sent relief into the hearts of everyone in attendance.

Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region Executive Director Minjhing Hsieh (right), Tzu Chi Recovery Service Center’s Disaster Recovery Administrator Suzanne Morrison (left), Bobbie Rae Jones (middle), and Disaster Case Manager Baba Kauna Mujamal (second right), give Cheryle Harrell (seated) a framed Jing Si Aphorism as a gift, reading, “Acts of kindness from each one of us are like the nectar of love that can enrich the hearts of many.” Photo/Changming Rong

Cheryle Finds Her Light

In the Concow community, Cheryle Harrell is like a mother, with many who love and admire her strength of spirit. Tzu Chi volunteers and disaster case managers are indeed among those inspired by her. 

Cheryle lived a calm and comfortable life in the Concow area of California, where 137 family members also resided — although she was the only one who owned real estate, and people often gathered at her home. In essence, Cheryle’s a bit like the head of this big family that she guides through life.

Back in 2017, a stroke caused Cheryle to experience vision loss in one eye and an unsteady gait. In 2018, the Camp Fire burned the only property she ever owned to ashes. Her heart sank, at a loss for how to move onward after such a tragedy.

Cheryle left the wildfire shelter where she stayed temporarily and returned to Concow at the beginning of 2019, but the home she missed every day was no longer there. 

“When that fire came through, I thought, ‘well… it’ll leave the property. I’ll live in a tent, I’ll live in a trailer, whatever,’” she reflected. 

Cheryle Harrell (left) and Bobbie Rae Jones (right), who’d been a Tzu Chi Disaster Case Manager during Tzu Chi’s Camp Fire relief mission, reveal joyful smiles at the dedication ceremony for Cheryle’s new home. Photo/Changming Rong

She purchased a small mobile home with the funds she had saved. The bedroom was filled with her belongings, so she slept on the sofa instead. The mobile home also needed a power generator to maintain operation, and the fuel cost of several hundred dollars per month added to the financial challenges post-disaster. During Tzu Chi’s winter Camp Fire relief distribution at the end of 2019, Cheryle found that solar lanterns and solar chargers were among the environmentally-conscious supplies offered. 

She thanked volunteers for the items, sharing how they would be useful for managing expenses, saying, “I am really grateful to Tzu Chi volunteers for their thoughtfulness.” 

In 2020, the area was impacted again by the Bear Fire, with the Dixie Fire causing further challenges in 2021 on the heels of a mounting global pandemic. Living on one’s own in the Concow region post-disaster hadn’t been easy either. Cheryle experienced a heart attack at the end of 2020 and received a life-saving stent procedure. After being discharged from the hospital, she prayed daily that she could someday rebuild her home, and have an indoor bathroom, washing machine, and a dryer, to manage her personal health and hygiene. She also hoped to resume her previous work, creating and selling handicrafts.

With the collaborative assistance of case managers and organizations, Cheryle’s wish was finally fulfilled. In March of 2022, Cheryle sat in front of the newly built home and shared her appreciation with people from participating organizations who came to congratulate her. “It’s just wonderful, it really is,” Cheryle said with a sigh. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so loved.”

Now that the home has been rebuilt, Cheryle can finally settle down on a cozy chair at the front of the calming blue-gray house, or with loved ones, all while knowing in her heart that, “This is my home, this is my community, whatever I like or don’t like in life, I can stay here and face everything in peace.”

A House for Terri

Terri Wynne and representatives from various organizations stand in front of the new house with bright smiles. Photo/Changming Rong
Tzu Chi Northwest Region Executive Director Minjhing Hsieh, local partners, and community members attend a groundbreaking ceremony for the very First Butte County approved tiny home for a local Camp Fire survivor. Photo/Changming Rong

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Just a few months before the Camp Fire, Terri Wynne experienced one major upheaval in her life after another. Her parents both passed, and her long-time best friend also passed away due to cancer. While Terri was allowing herself time to mourn in the house left to her by her friend, the Camp Fire destroyed everything overnight, with Terri quickly evacuating to the wildfire shelter. 

The wildfire had impacted the homes of so many community members, and as a dedicated home care worker, Terri also lost work as a result of the disaster. She then rented a house for several months following the Camp Fire, and the high cost of rent was another challenge she had to face head-on.  

When she was allowed to return to her residence, her home was gone, and Terri set up a tent in the open space for temporary shelter. The pandemic and the Northern Complex Fire that followed in 2020 complicated matters further, but fortunately, friends and community organizations were ready to assist. 

When life was most challenging, Terri had only a bucket of cold water both for personal hygiene and laundry. Changming Rong, a Tzu Chi volunteer who has been caring for survivors in Concow for quite some time, talked about his impression of Terri, saying, “Even in such a distressing situation, when there was outside help, Terri always asked that others who were in more urgent need be helped before her.”

Three years had passed since the wildfire. Then, one day, when Terri drove the long, snaking road back from work, she saw the red and white structure sitting on her land from a distance. 

“I came driving around this road,” she said pointing down the hill, the flowers Tzu Chi had given her in hand, “and I said, ‘holy cow, there’s a house on the hill!’” 

“There’s a house there — is that mine?” she’d kept asking herself as she drove the way up. The past suddenly seemed like a dream as she thought about a stable house and a stable life, and about looking for a home care job again. She thought about life with peace of mind.

At the dedication, Terri and the group burst into song, her bright smile joining those of the individuals who came to celebrate the occasion. Together, their joy echoed through the valley — the sadness she’d felt swept away by the spring breeze. Terri was finally home.

Tiny Home, Sweet Home

May 19, 2022, was also a monumental day in California, where multiple agencies and community members attended a ‘groundbreaking’ ceremony for the very first Butte County-approved tiny home for a Camp Fire survivor. The new home will play an important role in the pathway toward recovery, hope, and new beginnings with a sense of safety and security. 

With the Tiny Pine Foundation, we have a platform to help. And we just feel like if we can help, then we have to.

Alyssa Nolan
Founder
Tiny Pine Foundation

Over the past three years, Tzu Chi has worked with compassionate and innovative minds at the Tiny Pine Foundation to achieve alternative housing solutions that would help more wildfire survivors get home. Now, a Camp Fire survivor and Tzu Chi care recipient named John Yates will be the first Camp Fire survivor to live in a tiny home. The tiny home construction will be funded by Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, with more partnered organizations sharing the cost of building materials, and the construction will be contracted by the Tiny Pine Foundation. This joint disaster recovery project aims to complete the first tiny home within the next four months, followed by a total of five tiny homes in neighboring locations within a year. 

The May sunshine warmed the hills on the day of the ceremony, offering a cheerful start to the next phase of this collaborative effort. It’s hoped that in the near future, wildfire disaster survivors will return to these hills and find a home beneath that welcoming sun.

Never lose courage. Never lose faith. Nothing in this world is impossible when you are determined.

Jing Si Aphorism by Dharma Master Cheng Yen

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