'Whatever it takes': Volunteers ready to help neighbors long after Eagle Creek Fire fades

September 11, 2017

Zipporah, an Akita trained as a disaster therapy dog, meets neighbors at a community meeting in Corbett on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Wendy and John Colvin, volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service, have traveled the country for years helping neighbors return home after fires, floods and storms.

“We do whatever it takes,” John Colvin said, “to get people back into their homes.”

In Wyoming, they helped build fences, some 300 miles worth, after a wildfire. In West Virginia, they rebuilt private bridges washed out in floods. In Canada, they built a horse barn lost to flames. In Jackson, Miss., following Hurricane Katrina, it was something a little out of the ordinary.

“The homeowner would not allow us to build his house until his dog was taken care of,” John Colvin said. “So we built a dog house.”

As hundreds of evacuees from the Eagle Creek Fire keep a vigil for their homes and communities, the Colvins are among hundreds of volunteers from faith groups and other nonprofits already on the ground helping Columbia River Gorge neighbors cope with the fire and prepare for its aftermath.

Those groups include the American Red Cross, which is serving nearly 200 evacuees in shelters in Gresham and in Washington state. They also include several groups working under the coordination of Oregon Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Beyond providing shelter and the arms and tools needed to rebuild, those groups also provide services including emotional support and animal care.

Members of some of those organizations spoke at a briefing Sunday where they explained their role in helping residents face trauma and uncertainty, and the prospect of rebuilding, as they wait to return to their daily lives.

"These are not strangers"

John and Wendy Colvin of Mennonite Disaster Service
Justin Ross, community capacity specialist for Multnomah County’s Office of Emergency Management, said non-profits and faith-based organizations play a “critical role” in the recovery and relief phases of the fire response.

“These are not strangers,” Ross said Sunday. “These organizations are made up of your friends and your neighbors, people just like you who volunteer through their faith community or another non-governmental organizations to develop the skills needed to help people when they are going through the most difficult days of their lives.

“And they do it voluntarily and usually at their own expense,” he continued. “They take time away from the jobs and their homes and jobs and their family, and their own normal patterns of life, to help those whom they don’t even know.”

Julie Burk of HOPE Animal Assisted Crisis Response, brought out Zipporah, a 6-year-old Akita who works at Oregon Health & Science University when she’s not helping evacuees and disaster survivors as a therapy dog. The organization has dogs trained for that work across the nation.

Zipporah works with everyone involved in a disaster, including first responders. But she’s especially good with children, providing a sense of normalcy and “making it OK to laugh again,” Burk said. Zipporah was on hand for a community meeting Sunday in Corbett, and is set to appear at a meeting tonight in Troutdale.

“Her job is to get petted,” Burk said.

June Vining, executive director of the Trauma Intervention Program of Portland/Vancouver, Inc., was with Hyacinth, a Golden Retriever who does similar work in disasters, attending community meetings and showing up for first responders.

“She provides love to all the workers working so hard right now,” Vining said.

"We're just honored to be here"

Other organizations have stepped up to handle behind-the-scenes operations.

Materials available at a community meeting in Corbett on the Eagle Creek Fire on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Jeannie Reed, part of the disaster response team at Adventist Community Services, said Oregon members have been helping coordinate and store donations during the fire.

And Kenton Johnson, a chaplain with the Northwest chapter of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, said his group has been cooking up big meals for relief workers and at shelters. The group tends to do much of the cooking for the Red Cross, he said.

Johnson is personally doing spiritual and emotional counseling as part of his work as a chaplain. He also said his organization works just as much in the recovery phase of a disaster, digging out mud from homes that have flooded or removing ash and clearing debris around burned-out homes waiting to be rebuilt.

“We’re just honored to be here,” he said.

John Colvin of Mennonite Disaster Service said his organization helps people who might otherwise fall through the cracks: the under-insured, the non-insured, people with disabilities, the elderly and single parents struggling to make ends meet.

Other groups provide materials and money. They provide the muscle. And hope.

“That’s probably the biggest thing we have to offer,” he said. But, “we’re also pretty good at hammering a nail.”