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Christians Being Christian

Volunteers build sheds — and hope — in Paradise for Camp Fire survivors.

Mary Johnson selfie photo at Love Paradise event in California.

Mary Johnson and another volunteer take a "selfie" photo at the November 2019 Love Paradise shed building event in California. More than 350 volunteers total visited the Paradise Seventh-day Adventist site over the course of several weeks to work on the construction of 200 sheds. Photo by Mary Johnson

The morning of November 8, 2018, began just like any other day for Allen Plowman and his two children, residents of Paradise, California. At 7:30 they hopped in the car to head to school. The kids commented on how beautiful the sunrise was that morning.

But when Plowman pulled in front of Paradise Adventist Academy, he was told to take his kids home. There was a fire nearby, and though there was no official word, as a precaution there would be no school that day.

Ash was now falling from a darkened sky. Not unusual—sometimes fires from as far away as 100 miles drop ash in town. Unperturbed, Plowman climbed onto his roof and began the normal precautions—cleaning pine needles out of the rain gutters and hosing down the roof. It was there that he saw the flames.

“Less than a block away, a tree was burning,” he says. “We hadn’t been warned that there was imminent danger, but the fire was coming fast.”

Plowman’s kids grabbed two of their favorite toys, and he tossed a box of important papers into the back of their truck. It took two and a half hours to get out of town. They passed their regular grocery store and gas station, both in flames, and at one point a truck driving next to them caught fire.

A week and a half later Plowman was watching YouTube videos taken by cleanup crews—the only people allowed into Paradise—and he caught a glimpse of his property. Everything was gone.

One Year Later

In July 2019 Plowman, his kids, and his mom were finally allowed back. It took two months from the time of the fire for them to be permitted to return, and another six months for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to clear the debris enough for a camper to be moved onto their property.

November 8, 2019. Plowman is back on his property. Or what was left of it.

As fall slips into winter around the residents of Paradise, it’s not the haunting, happy sounds of Canada geese flying south that greets them every morning; it’s the visceral roar of a chain saw. Or three.

The bone-dry, charred-black trees still standing around Paradise leave the area vulnerable to another, more terrifying fire. And though they’ve removed 60,000 of them, more than 600,000 remain. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, Plowman and his neighbors live their lives to a soundtrack of chain saws. And because none of the residence plots have electricity restored, the constant rattling drone of generators fills whatever breaks there are in the chain saw work.

Surrounded by a landscape of fire retardant-covered dirt, felled trees, and piles of garbage and debris waiting to be hauled to the dump, Plowman has crammed everything the family owns into their camper with them, or tightly into the back of their truck. In the middle of what they call “the yard”—a flattened piece of land where their house used to sit, and where one day they hope it will again—sits Plowman’s daughter’s drum set, covered only with a small blue tarp.

“We don’t have anywhere else to put it for her to practice,” he says. “But we can’t leave it out, or it will get ruined or stolen.”

Plowman hesitates to purchase anything of value for lack of anywhere to store it securely. Stories have been passed around Paradise of entire campers disappearing while the owners are at work. And with the rainy season quickly approaching, storing items outdoors, especially if they are sensitive to temperature and humidity fluctuations, isn’t an option.

An aerial view of the shed build at the Paradise church site where volunteers constructed more than 200 sheds.

An aerial view of the shed build at the Pardise church site where volunteers ended up constructing more than 200 sheds. Photo by Tom Lloyd

This is particularly an issue for Ashley, a young dialysis patient who administers her own dialysate at home. Ashley lives with her husband and two dogs in a worn-down camper at the end of a dead-end street.

At one corner of their temporary home sits a pile of cardboard boxes full of Ashley’s dialysis supplies, which need to stay dry in order to be viable. If the supplies are ruined, Ashley can’t administer her dialysis, and she could potentially die.

Ashley, who currently lives in a camper with her husband and two dogs, thanks Joelle Chinnock, build coordinator for the Love Paradise project, for a much needed storage shed.

"Ashley," who currently lives in a camper with her husband and two dogs, thanks Joelle Chinnock, build coordinator for the Love Paradise project, for a much-needed storage shed. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Love Paradise

“Ashley is the reason the shed project is so important,” says Joelle Chinnock, member of the Paradise Adventist Church and coordinator of the shed build project. “That storage space is literally saving her life.”

Though their home did not burn, Chinnock’s family, along with 50,000 others, were evacuated when the fire started. Chinnock began giving her time to her church’s outreach ministry, Love Paradise.

Three years ago Garrison Chaffee, youth pastor at the church and director of Love Paradise, met with the town manager of Paradise and agreed to take on Make a Difference Day, a national movement for community engagement. Since then, Love Paradise, with members of the church and community, have cleaned a bike path, painted park benches, planted daffodils, and more.

“Since the fire, the avenues and opportunities for Love Paradise to serve have multiplied exponentially,” Chaffee says. “We set up a distribution center at the Chico church and filled and emptied the gym with donations three times.”

The group also set up a clean water station at the former Paradise church site, as most of the local water supply is tainted with heavy metals as a result of the fire. They got thousands of brand-new T-shirts donated by various sources. Additionally, they put together what they dubbed “Welcome Home Kits,” large plastic bins packed with items a family might need to get their homes restarted after the fire, such as towels, dishes, pots and pans, soap, toilet paper, garbage cans, and gift cards.

In order to continue to be relevant, Love Paradise browsed Facebook support pages to find areas of greatest need. When Chinnock saw a post about a man building a shed for someone, she thought, We could do that.

Joelle Chinnock, project coordinator, poses by a finished shed showing the partners that helped make the build possible.

Joelle Chinnock, project coordinator, poses by a finished shed showing the partners that helped make the build possible. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Two days after suggesting the shed build, representatives from Maranatha Volunteers International were standing in the parking lot of what used to be the Paradise Seventh-day Adventist Church, planning to build 100 sheds.

Chinnock was working on a budget for the project when she got a call from David Woods, the on-site building director. He wanted to build 200 sheds.

“In a panic, I asked him if he had any idea how much money that would be,” says Chinnock.

“David calmly responded, ‘How big is your God?’”

They decided to aim for 200.

Love Paradise volunteers sign the final shed's inside wall. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Love Paradise volunteers sign the final shed's inside wall. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Diverse Investment

Bang-thwack! Bang-thwack! Pause.

Bang-thwack! Bang-thwack! Pause.

A volunteer pounds a sledgehammer against the wall base, fitting it tightly against the floor frame, while inside another wields a nail gun, driving nails deep into the two-by-fours between each stud.

Several yards away, at the edge of the pavement, is a line of three makeshift workbenches where more volunteers zzzip away, cutting boards for the 10’ x 12’ sheds—the largest you can build without a permit. The system is a tight one; everyone moves deftly and efficiently between stations.

“Often when building inspectors see a bunch of older people and kids as builders, they’re skeptical,” admits Kenneth Weiss, executive vice president for Maranatha Volunteers International. He stands on the build site in boots and a hard hat, arms folded across his chest, and chuckles. “But regularly, these same inspectors express incredulity at the high quality of work our volunteers produce. We’re pretty proud of that.”

This is especially true as the number of volunteers increases, as a larger group typically becomes less manageable.

The average Maranatha project in North America has 40 to 50 volunteers, and the organization’s largest project, Ultimate Workout, boasted approximately 200. The shed build project in Paradise has seen more than 350 volunteers come through, some for a day, others for a week, a few for the entire three weeks, topping out at nearly 125 per day.

“What I’ve really enjoyed watching with this particular project is the amazing synergy between so many different involved parties,” Weiss says. “It’s truly fantastic to see this many entities invested in their community.”

One of more than 350 volunteers helps construct a storage shed in Paradise, California. Julie Z. Lee

One of more than 350 volunteers helps construct a storage shed in Paradise, California. Julie Z. Lee

He’s right; the plaques affixed to each shed include the list of all entities who sponsored the project, including not only Adventist churches, Adventist union conferences and conferences, Maranatha, Adventist Community Services, and Adventist Health, but also Capay Farms, North Valley Community Foundation, North Fork Lumber Company, Chico Building, Paradise Rotary Foundation, Schmidbauer Lumber, Inc., Butte Strong Fund, and Trinity River Lumber Company.

The volunteers are also a diverse group, ranging in age from 6 to 80, and coming from various places across the country and beyond.

Shenalyn and her children took a day off from homeschooling to help. Even her 6-year-old daughter, Sonya, happily painted sheds.

Kai is part of an AmeriCorps group and hails from Sierra Leone.

Devin, age 11, and Caleb, age 14, came with their families from Weimar, California, for their first-ever mission experience.

Randy, from Denver, Colorado, read about the shed build
on Facebook.

Keanan drove down from Oregon with his landlord to volunteer, and stayed even after his landlord went home.

David came out from Maine and celebrated his birthday on the build site, enjoying the group’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” at lunch with an extra-large serving of peach cobbler. “It’s the biggest birthday party I’ve ever had,” he said with a big grin to go with it.

Though many volunteers were Adventists, a large number were not.

“It was unusual to get such a large number of non-Adventist volunteers,” says Kyle Fiess, vice president of projects for Maranatha. “Part of the reason for that is the significant media attention we received regionally. People really have an interest in what’s happening in Paradise, and they want to be involved.”

Volunteer builders celebrate the completion of more than 200 storage sheds for Paradise, California, residents who lost their homes in the 2018 Camp Fire. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Volunteer builders celebrate the completion of more than 200 storage sheds for Paradise, California, residents who lost their homes in the 2018 Camp Fire. Photo by Tom Lloyd

Paradise Rebuilt

During the final days of the shed build, Paradise council member Mike Zuccolillo, who also lost his home to the fire, came to meet the people behind the project. About five feet ten with close-cut salt-and-pepper hair, Zuccolillo moves with relaxed intention and has an easy smile.

“I’ve been amazed at how the private sector has stepped up and answered the call to help,” he says. Butte County is not a wealthy one, and for most residents, saving an extra few hundred dollars is a big deal. Finding storage options is next to impossible.

In the year following the fire, Zuccolillo says, the remaining residents have learned to celebrate “all the little happy things.” They’ve gone from a city of nearly 27,000 to a ghost town with an estimated 2,000 residents, but they are a resilient, optimistic bunch. “We celebrate every little victory,” he says, “because to us, as we rebuild our entire town, they’re not so little.”

Rebuilding their town is exactly what this group is working on as they move shed after shed off the line and into the parking lot to be painted.

“One year out from the fire, you have a whole community of people who no longer need peanut butter sandwiches; they need long-term support,” Fiess says. “They need people to care about them and to assure them they haven’t been forgotten.”

The reaction of shed recipients has been one of humble and sincere gratitude. A once-wealthy woman who had lost everything broke down in tears when her shed was delivered. “I’ve always been in a position to help others, contributing where I could to those less fortunate,” she sobbed. “I’m so grateful for others who can now do the same for me.”

One man who came to the site to thank the builders commented, “It’s nice to see Christians being Christian.”

During the build Chinnock overheard her son tell the site director, “We’re building for Jesus.”

In the beginning her family was hesitant to get onboard, certain she was in over her head.

“They were right,” Chinnock says with the hint of a smile. “I am in over my head. But my God walks on water.”

The End of the Beginning 

On November 21, five days before the scheduled end of the project, approximately 120 volunteers gathered on the build site to be a part of the final shed going through the line. Some had nail guns, others had hammers; still others picked up routers. The frame was nailed; the hole for the door cut on one wall. A call went out for “several strong men” to lift the wall to the floor frame; a group of several strong women ran to raise the next. Laughter and chatter filled the space between poundings and buzzings and bangings.

They had done it.

The crowd closed around the final shed and passed around a Sharpie for everyone to sign the inside of the building. Some wrote Bible verses; others simply signed their names with swoops and swirls and tails. People cheered and clapped.

Then a murmur began at one end of the crowd. As the roof was lifted via Bobcat and lowered into place, the word spread throughout the group of volunteers: This wasn’t actually shed number 200.

It was shed number 202.

— Becky St. Clair is a freelance writer who lives in Angwin, California.

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Major Impact

As of the end of November 2019, Love Paradise has received nearly 700 applications for sheds.

“We’ve been looking for ways to be relevant ever since we started Love Paradise,” says Joelle Chinnock, coordinator of the shed build project and member of the Paradise Adventist Church, “and we don’t have to search anymore. If we get too diversified, we can’t perfect what we’re doing. We just do sheds now. It’s our thing, and it’s how we can best serve our community.”

The need continues to be great. Nearly 19,000 structures, with more than 11,000 of those homes, were lost in Paradise from the Camp Fire, the most destructive in California history. Burning more than 153,000 acres, the Camp Fire resulted in the deaths of 86 people ranging in age from 53 to 90, and also impacted nearby Magalia and Concow communities.Once a thriving community of around 27,000, Paradise is now populated by an estimated (exact counts are difficult) 2,000, and many of those are living in RVs or trailers.

“These sheds are so important,” Chinnock explains. “For those in situations similar to Ashley’s, a shed can be lifesaving. For a majority of Paradise residents, like Allen, a shed is a sense of security. It’s safety. For some, it’s the closest thing to a home they’ve had for over a year.”

Love Paradise is coordinating with Maranatha to conduct another shed build project in spring 2020. To be a part of this project, sign up to volunteer through Maranatha Volunteers International (maranatha.org), or donate toward the project via Love Paradise (loveparadise.net).