What I didn’t expect was that at almost midnight we’d be unloading cots from a storage container. It had started as such an ordinary Wednesday (visits to classrooms, work on next year’s master schedule). Sure it was hot, even in the morning, but this year spring seems to have forgotten that “grey” and “gloom” rhyme with the last two months of the school year. As I was having a conversation with one of my counselors, we were interrupted by the news that a plume of smoke was rising from somewhere north of campus. It looked close. We hurried outside. The world had caught fire.
My story of the fires isn’t as dramatic as many. While friends had to evacuate homes, and while brave people I know fought the fires and kept the peace, I played a much quieter part. But from my place in that next ring of helping, the fires gave me a catbird seat to the great work dedicated people brought to helping others. LCC had the privilege of being a Red Cross Shelter site.
The call came just as our school day ended. I was back in my office after seeing that smoke, and within half an hour I found myself shaking hands with a friendly, preternaturally calm woman in a reflective red vest. One eye on the smoke, we toured our gym and facilities and made arrangements to open our doors to those evacuated from their homes.
Volunteers arrived first. Of all ages and backgrounds (the nurse, the student, the retired policeman), they set up our center with efficiency and a confidence earned through experience. AP Mark Van Over, Admin Designee Christina Holland, and I helped hang signs, open doors, and find solutions to the little problems (refrigeration for medication, where to park the canteen truck, AEDs, tables and chairs). Our custodial team jumped in, laying tarps on the gym floor, organizing supply runs to our Red Cross storage container on campus. With poise and purpose the Red Cross prepared for folks to come.
They did. With skies darkening, displaced people began to arrive. They were families first, calming parents with stress behind their eyes, a trio of little girls in Easter dresses clutching stuffed bears. Couples walked up, their cars piled with the things that mattered. The elderly. The young. The people who had nowhere else to go.
Some stayed only long enough to eat and make phone calls. Some found comfort in our air conditioned dance room. Some talked with a grief counselor, collecting themselves enough to contemplate their next options.
Throughout the evening volunteers welcomed guests as they might old friends. We found water bowls for tired dogs and extra slices of pizza for tired kids. We located tea bags and hot water when that might provide comfort, and handed out Italian Ices when a truck arrived to deliver a donation from Rita’s.
LCC students came to campus, asking how they could help. Wearing Maverick gear and offering to do anything they could to be of service, these students are an exemplar of what is right with today’s youth.
The number of guests rose and fell as people were able to make arrangements to stay with family or friends. A man arrived to say that he had booked a hotel room that he now didn’t need and he wanted to donate it to a family who might. The three little girls in spring dresses followed their parents to a homier place to spend the night, even if their stuffed bears smelled a little smoky.
And as I walked around, really peripheral to the amazing work around me, in awe of the scope of tragedy and the scope of kindness, I overheard something that will stick with me for life. A man on his cell phone was convincing someone on the other end of the line that things would be okay. He said: “You should come over to LCC. There’s food, and safety, and it’s good.”
I had never been prouder of our work at LCC.
We set up cots that night. We got everyone settled and lowered the lights. When I got home I hugged my wife and kids a little tighter than normal, gave thanks for the happenstance of living a few miles south of the evacuation zone, and got ready for bed. The phone rang.
The Red Cross supervisor was on the phone explaining that 125 senior citizens were being evacuated and would be at LCC in less than an hour. I’ll blame tiredness, but it was a moment that robbed me of any buoyancy I’d been given by the pride of helping out. But the fires were unconcerned with my feelings, or any of our emotions for that matter.
Fifteen minutes later we had gates open, a plan to move people in, and were loading emergency cots into a truck for transport to the gym.
And then I heard a second phrase that has been echoing in my head for a week or so. The Red Cross supervisor called me on my cell to say that plans had changed: the seniors wouldn’t be coming after all.
I think she read frustration in my silence; I’d gotten out of bed and hurried to campus for what? And then she said, with the patience of a good teacher helping a struggling student, something that put it, and so much in perspective for me. “Bjorn,” she said, “they’re not coming, but in this business that’s good news. They don’t need to come, because they’re safe.”