With a major forest fire just miles away, Susanville UMC’s recently launched HOPE (Helping Other People Eat) Food Pantry leveraged their network of community partners to rapidly equip Lassen County’s evacuation center with the resources they requested, thus nimbly demonstrating the Methodist tradition of putting faith into service. This was only possible thanks to an empowered and connected laity that passionately takes the attitude of “looking out for each other” to heart.
During a conversation in mid-April 2020, Susanville UMC’s recently assigned rookie pastor casually asked if church members might be interested in operating a food pantry, something the church had offered in years past. The congregation overwhelmingly supported the idea, and three key people – Mark & Mandy Speiker and Ed Hafner – spearheaded the effort. Their hard work combined with God’s blessings and Pastor Charles White’s previous food pantry experience resulted in the church opening HOPE Food Pantry on Friday, May 29, 2020.
Little did anyone know at the time how quickly the pantry would grow and the role it would play in serving the community during the week of July 19 when a small forest fire quickly grew and threatened Susanville, CA. Thanks to the generous donations of time, money, food, and personal hygiene items from the congregation as well as numerous community partners, the HOPE Food Pantry was able to respond quickly to the county evacuation center’s request for food and beverages.
The HOPE Food Pantry began as a desire to address the rampant food insecurity issues of Susanville. It has become a key connection between the church’s members and the public as well as a connection between church leaders and community leaders – both public and private. Thanks to the relationships created during the past five months, the HOPE Food Pantry is now positioned to become a vital hub connecting the people and resources of the California-Nevada Annual Conference with the communities of Northeastern California.
Since our opening day on May 29, the HOPE Food Pantry’s weekly operations have utilized 2,632 volunteer hours serving 301 clients representing 1,029 family members. We thank God every day for how we have been blessed and continually ask for wisdom and direction. We are grateful to have this opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus in Susanville; thanks be to God!
A day-to-day account of that week’s events follows.
Saturday, July 18, 2020
The Hog Fire started at 3:30 pm several miles west of Susanville. Fires are named for where they originate; this one started near the Hog Flat Reservoir, just west of Susanville.
Sunday, July 19, 2020.
By 6:00 pm Sunday night, multiple areas of Lassen County received notice of evacuation warnings due to the Hog Fire.
Anticipating a likely mandatory evacuation, Susanville UMC’s building manager, Ed Hafner, made some of the church’s storage space available so church members could safely store their personal items. By nightfall, the Lassen County Evacuation Center was established at Lassen Community College.
When the mandatory evacuation orders were issued, Pastor Charles White called church members in the evacuation area to ensure they were safe and had an evacuation plan.
Pastor Charles welcomed one church couple into the parsonage for what would become five days of tedious waiting. Throughout the night, several church members volunteered with community members to help evacuating residents, including church members, pack and move their property as quickly as possible.
Monday, July 20, 2020 Size = 5,800 acres Containment = 0%
Using Facebook, the county’s evacuation center requested single serving snacks and beverages. Mark Speiker, manager of the HOPE Food Pantry, met with Todd Eid, the manager of Susanville IGA grocery store to make arrangements to purchase $142.00 worth of single serving snacks. Todd allowed us to purchase at cost 6 cases of Hostess snack cakes (216 individual total). We were unable to get a receipt since Susanville was already having trouble with Internet connections thus making gift and debit cards useless.
By mid-day Monday, the Hog Fire had damaged or destroyed multiple cell towers and fiber optic lines causing severe interruption to phone and internet service.
Mark dropped off the donation of snacks to the Evacuation Center and met with Mondy Rigling, Administrative Assistant, Lassen County Health and Social Services. She was coordinating feeding and housing seven members of the community with more evacuees expected. Ms. Rigling explained that meals had been arranged. Local restaurants were donating single-serving breakfasts and lunches as well as dinners since the evacuation center was prohibited from preparing mass meals due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Mark provided her with contact cards for the HOPE Food Pantry and his personal cell number to call if they had any further needs. During the afternoon, additional mandatory evacuation notifications went out for parts of Lassen county. The Gold Fire was now burning approximately 90 miles north of Susanville.
Since Susanville’s evacuation center would now serve evacuees of the Gold Fire, Pastor Charles White and Mark put together an additional estimated $150.00 worth of food items and drinks and donated them to the Evacuation Center.
Tuesday, July 21, 2020 Size = 8,000 acres Containment = 5%
While making arrangements to purchase food items for the food pantry at IGA, Todd Eid informed Mark that he would donate 25 cases ($75.00 value, no receipt) of bottled water to the HOPE Food Pantry if we could immediately deliver the water to the Evacuation Center, which we did with Ed Hafner’s assistance.
We once again informed Mondy Rigling to call us if she had any other needs, and we would see what we could provide. With the Evacuation Center now housing 11 members of the community, Ms. Rigling stated they needed soap and wash cloths. In less than an hour, the Hope Food Pantry donated $20.00 worth of hygiene items from our stock of supplies.
Throughout the day, phone and internet service was severely limited.
At this point, the fire was big enough to create its own weather patterns including afternoon rain and lightning storms. Around 6:00 pm the rain began but fell heavier and colder than expected. Within a few minutes, the rain turned into pea-sized hail which rapidly soaked and cooled much of the fire. Josh Edelson, a photographer embeded with the firefighters, said the temperature dropped from 94° to 54° in approximately 10 minutes. Local residents familiar with forest fire patterns describe this as nothing short of a miraculous act of God that likely saved a heavily wooded neighborhood of 200+ homes.
(See Josh Edelson’s photos posted on 7-21-20 https://www.facebook.com/josh.edelson .)
Wednesday, July 22, 2020 Size = 9,400 acres Containment = 9%
Mark and Pastor Charles checked in with Evacuation Center officials both in the morning and afternoon. They had no additional needs and were now housing 18 community members – including some of our church’s members.
Throughout the day, phone and internet service remained severely limited.
Thursday, July 23, 2020 Size = 9,540 acres Containment = 26%
Mark and Pastor Charles checked in with Evacuation Center officials in the morning. They stated that they were still housing 18 community members and beginning to get low on breakfast sandwiches. HOPE Food Pantry purchased $41.03 worth of breakfast sandwiches from Walmart and IGA (we have receipts) and immediately donated them to the Evacuation Center.
By noon, internet connections were mostly restored and cell phone service had improved considerably. With containment improving and no homes nor lives lost, everyone began to relax by reconnecting with family and friends via email and social media.
At about 3:00 pm, Susanville lost all electrical power due to the fire. Pastor Charles and Mark returned to Evacuation Center to check on any additional needs due to the change in circumstances. Mondy Rigling stated that she had been advised to prepare to be without power for up to 5 days. Due to the loss in power, they would need to provide single-serving lunches to those housed in the Evacuation Center. After a quick discussion, we determined that HOPE Food Pantry would purchase $47.46 worth of “Uncrustables” as well as individual diabetic-friendly lasagnas to cover lunch for two days. We planned to revisit the Evacuation Center’s lunch needs on Saturday afternoon.
Friday, July 24, 2020 Size = 9,540 acres Containment = 38%
Susanville awoke to the sounds of personal-sized electrical generators.
That morning, Pastor Charles and Mark checked in with Evacuation Center officials; they had been informed that some evacuation areas may be opened back up, but they would not close the Evacuation Center while there was no power in the community. We advised them that we would check back in the evening since we had the HOPE Food Pantry’s distribution from 3-6 pm.
Thankfully, electricity was restored around 11:00 am.
At 1:30 pm, we were notified by the Evacuation Center that they were closing their operations and wanted us to come pick up items that had been donated. We advised the Evacuation Center officials that we would store and maintain all food items plus 15 cases of water for any future evacuation needs.
We also advised the Evacuation Center officials that we would meet with them in the coming weeks to discuss and plan the HOPE Food Pantry’s further collaboration with Lassen County during emergency situations.
Saturday, July 25, 2020 Size = 9,545 acres Containment = 45%
With evacuations lifted for the area around Susanville, most people had returned home to air out their houses, throw away spoiled food, and try to return to the “new normal” of dealing with Covid-19.
It should be noted that these actions occurred simultaneously with the HOPE Pantry’s normal operations including donation collections in Reno and daily collections from our community partners in the Susanville area. We did all of this while coping with limited to non-existent internet or cell service, and no electricity which required generators to ensure our operations continued uninterrupted.
As August begins, the HOPE Food Pantry is only in its 10th week of operation. The concept of operating a pantry developed on April 13, 2020, and our first weekly Friday distribution occurred on May 29, 2020 where we served just one individual.
During the month of June 2020, we served 93 clients representing 326 family members. During the month of July 2020, we served 207 clients representing 702 family members. On top of assisting Lassen County with their evacuation needs, we had our busiest food distribution on Friday, July 24, serving 60 clients representing 194 family members. To date, the HOPE Food Pantry’s weekly operations have utilized 2,632 volunteer hours serving 301 clients representing 1,029 family members. We thank God every day for how we have been blessed and continually ask for wisdom and direction. We are grateful to have this opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus in Susanville; thanks be to God!