This summer, I worked at a summer camp called Idyllwild Arts in Idyllwild, California. It was my first time in California and at a summer camp where the kids stay overnight. I learned a lot during our orientation and training process, including how to evacuate campus should we ever need to leave the mountain due to a forest fire.
The camp sits in the San Jacinto mountain range. Being in Southern California, it was imperative that the staff knew how to evacuate the camp and campers in case of fire. Even though it was a huge part of my training and I felt confident in my abilities if ever a fire was to happen, it certainly wasn't something I thought would happen to me.
Sometimes, though, things don't always go to plan. July 25th, 2018, Brandon McGlover set 9 fires near the Idyllwild community. Within 2 hours, the camp was in full on evacuation mode. No one had time to grab anything, including the campers. For most people, we went down the mountain with what we had in our hands on our backs.
Idyllwild Arts staff members filled person vehicles and camp cans with campers and began to caravan down the mountain. Thanks to the excellent leadership and impeccable staff training, a 500 person campus was evacuated in under 2 hours.
Our evacuation hub was at a high school at the base of the mountain. As a counselor, my job was to hang out with children and make sure they felt safe and supported at such a tumultuous time. There were nearly 400 campers in that high school gym, all who needed to be cared for and fed until camp reopened.
Though most went home with family, some campers from out of state remained in the schools care. The task was now to clothe, feed, house, and entertain the remaining campers and staff members. Idyllwild Arts, of course, has contingency budgets and planning for these situations, but from the moment we evacuated to the gym at the base of the mountain, the community reached out in mass.
Volunteers from the high school opened the snack bar to us and helped serve snacks until dinner arrived, which they also helped serve until 11 pm. A woman from the town brought some clothes she planned to donate to be distributed to the kids since they had near to no belongings with them.
The Lions Club of Beaumont, California provided us a pancake breakfast. The Motel 6 of Palm Springs assisted with housing. Palm Valley School and Rancho Mirage provided us with dinner and donated toiletries and snacks. Find Food Bank in Indio, CA donated water, fruit, snacks, and breakfast. Palm Springs Art museum gave the children and staff free admission.
Regal theatre gave the kids a movie treat last night. This is not to mention the outpouring of those from the Idyllwild community and past campers that have reached out to the staff to ask if there is anything they can do to help.
I have volunteered at my local food bank my entire collegiate career. Not often do I get to see the food be delivered, let alone the impact it makes on the community. As I unloaded cases of water from the food bank truck on day 1, I realized my life had finally come full circle.
The food I was usually packing for redistribution was now in my possession. Though this fire was an enormous event that impacted thousands of lives, the silver lining is the volunteers that have stepped up to provide for children who have been displaced. It is an incredible mountain community that I am thankful for.
If anything, this experience has given me a renewed sense of thankfulness for those who volunteer. I am most thankful for the parents at Palm Valley high, who gave us anything and everything they could. I can sum the experience up in one instance. I was looking through the toiletries that had been donated, searching for a bottle of shampoo and conditioner I could take with me.
A dad walked up to me, who was replenishing the stock of donated things, with a box of candy bars. He told me to take as many as I wanted. Knowing that even a major wildfire couldn't stop my sweet tooth, I took three. Once you're on the reciting end for a change, you realize how much of an impact small things can make. This may be my first fire and this midwestern girl may have been a little shaken, but it was a couple of candy bars that turned it all around.
So, if you're volunteering and you catch yourself wondering just what kind of impact one person can make, know that there are people on the receiving end who don't have the words to thank you for all you do. As I sit cuddled on my co-counselors couch in a nearby town, I am thankful for those who open their homes, hearts, and hands in times of need.
If you feel called to support Idyllwild after the fire, there are plenty of ways to do it! Volunteer, visit or donate your local forest. It isn't without the extensive forest preservation organizations that our forests would be as well cared for as they are. The FIND food bank is currently providing food both to campers and to other families displaced in the fire and is accepting donations. Last but not least, volunteer. Help your local community. It can, and does, changes lives.