News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Focus on Community Service: Gates church rose to occasion after fires

About the Series: These stories are part of a package noting the third anniversary of the 2020 wildfires. The goal is to look ahead to challenges for Santiam Canyon communities.

 

When Gates Community Church of Christ was left standing after the Santiam Fire, its role in the coming recovery became clear.

Pastor Mike Stair said church members had already been discussing a possible disaster response plan before the fire, such as storing emergency supplies and investing in a generator.

After the fire Sept. 7, 2020, Stair said there was little hesitation among church leaders to designate the site as a resource center. 

“We already have a calling from God to be a light in the world, and we had people who were willing to step up and to take action to be able to do that in this situation,” he said.

The church soon became a hub for everything from clothing to meals to household tools, and three years later remains a central part of ongoing fire recovery.

Stair recalled that the initial days after the fire was a mix of ups and downs.

He said the community came together in meaningful ways, like when The Lions Club and the B.P.O.E. offered free meals at the church through the initial months. Dozens of volunteers would also arrive each day to help sort through donations of clothing and other items arriving by the truckload, while later volunteers arrived to help rebuild homes. 

And just six months after the fire, volunteers and community groups opened the Santiam Tool Library at the church, which continues operating today.

“You just saw, I think, the best of people,” said Stair.

Those same experiences were sometimes bittersweet due to the widespread devastation of the fire. 

While many church members volunteered, 16 families in the church lost their homes and most are still struggling to rebuild. Stair said rebuilding was often hampered by state and federal bureaucracies and insurance companies, and he is grateful groups like the Santiam Service Integration Team (SIT) are assisting homeowners.

The emotional cost of the fire was also difficult to avoid while helping connect survivors with resources.

Stair recalled one woman who was afraid her children would be taken by a welfare agency if she applied for help through SIT because the fire had made her homeless. He said he reassured her SIT would not break up her family but would help them get back on their feet.

Then there was the man who wept after receiving a new pair of Danner boots, with Stair remarking the shoes the man was wearing were in no shape for sorting through ashes.

Stair said these human interactions were sometimes heartbreaking, but also made the experience worthwhile because he knew the church and its partners were truly helping people.

As the work continued, Stair said volunteers started feeling the emotional weight of interacting with people in crisis day after day. He said volunteers were encouraged to keep an eye on their mental health and take time for themselves, and to talk out the experiences and emotions that were weighing on them.

“People want to help but sometimes they can help too much and you don’t want them to burn out,” he said.

When asked what milestones were still ahead toward fire recovery, Stair said resources for home rebuilding have poured into the canyon but support for city governments has been slower. While Gates, Detroit and other communities are working with county, state and federal agencies, they still lack the funding to get back on their feet.

He also said the strong independence of many Santiam Canyon residents has been an obstacle toward accessing help. Even with groups like SIT and Christian Aid Ministries offering support, some people don’t want to feel beholden to others, said Stair.

He said bringing down those barriers can be humbling, but those moments have also “brought about a greater sense of community, of helping your neighbor, of just coming together for something bigger than ourselves, so I see that as a positive for our community.”

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