By Julie Z. Lee
Last September, Joelle Chinnock was spending a lot of time on Facebook. However, she wasn’t scrolling through pictures of friends’ vacations or pasta dinners. She was searching various pages that had popped up in the aftermath of the devastating Camp Fire in Paradise, California—pages for survivors, ways to help, and information.
“People were posting things they needed, the desperate situation they were in,” said Chinnock, director of development and disaster recovery for Love Paradise, a ministry of the Paradise church. “And Garrison asked me to find people we could start helping.”
Garrison Chaffee was the associate pastor at Paradise church, which had burned to the ground during the wildfire that ripped through the city in November 2018. The entire pastoral team was dedicated to helping their community recover. Already they had organized multiple outreach events, including giving away home kits and providing clean water from the church well. Now they were looking for the next project, the next need. Then something caught Chinnock’s eye.
“I saw somebody on one of those [Facebook threads] saying that they were going to build a shed for somebody, because they needed a shed. And I thought that was a great idea. And I immediately sent it to Garrison and said, ‘Hey, let’s build some sheds,’” remembered Chinnock.
Out of the more than 26,000 residents who used to live in Paradise, approximately 2,000 have moved back onto their properties. Most of them lost their homes to the fire and live in trailers as they wait for insurance payouts and permits to rebuild. Few have a place to store their personal belongings, and theft has become a major issue. In one desperate situation, a woman on dialysis was having to store her medical supplies outside in cardboard boxes. For the survivors, a shed would be a godsend.
Chinnock figured that the church could build a couple of structures in the church property parking lot and hand them out. But Chaffee had another idea. He recalled a conversation with Maranatha Volunteers International soon after the fire. Maranatha had offered to help when the community was ready to rebuild.
“He put two and two together and made the call, and Maranatha was on board. They came up within a day or two of that phone call… and it was all thumbs up from there,” said Chinnock.
At that September meeting, Maranatha and the Paradise church agreed to build 200 storage sheds with a volunteer project scheduled to begin in November. Over the next eight weeks, Love Paradise rushed to secure funding from a variety of charities, corporations, and local businesses. They also worked with local leadership to create an application process for recipients of the shed. In the meantime, Maranatha designed a shed, developed a construction plan, and recruited volunteers. They also searched for lodging for the volunteers—no easy feat, given that Paradise is still essentially a disaster zone; few places have water or electricity. An attitude of flexibility would be a must, along with quite a few generators.
On November 5, 2019, Maranatha volunteers from all over the United States began arriving in Paradise. Participants parked their trailers at Paradise Adventist Academy—which has been closed since the fire after suffering partial damage—or camped out on cots in the classrooms. The Northern California Conference loaned the project a portable shower trailer. Two classrooms were converted into a kitchen and dining hall. Multiple generators were borrowed or purchased to power construction tools, kitchen appliances, and lights for the volunteers.
Across the street from the campus, Maranatha established a construction site in the parking lot of the Adventist church, setting up an assembly line with stations for the base, walls, roof, and paint for each 10- by 12-foot shed.
The next day, the project was off and running, with approximately 80 volunteers and less than 100 applicants for sheds. Thanks to several reports on the project from local newspapers and news stations, more than 100 volunteers arrived by the weekend. The number of applicants also began to soar. By the end of the project, Love Paradise had received more than 700 applications.
“Shortly after the first shed was built, the word spread through town immediately,” said Kyle Fiess, vice president of projects for Maranatha. “Everybody was aware that the Paradise Seventh-day Adventist Church was building sheds and giving them away. The media attention spread the news throughout Northern California, and pretty soon we had volunteers showing up to help from two to three hours away. Some of these people had never heard of Maranatha or were not familiar with the Adventist Church. And we used that opportunity to make friends with a large group of people that we would have never met otherwise.”
In total, Maranatha volunteers constructed 202 sheds. Nearly 400 people volunteered on the project, including several survivors of the Camp Fire who also lost their homes. Americorps, a federal service organization for 18- to 24-year-olds, sent a team of volunteers. Several members of Cal Fire spent a few days at the project. The neighborhood Lowes Home Improvement store not only offered discounts for materials but employees came by on multiple days with pastries, warm drinks, and gratitude for the volunteers.
“I cried the first time I came up here,” said Charissa Gorman, a Lowes employee who stopped by the project one day. She and her family lost everything in the fire, and she now lives in a neighboring town. “It’s absolutely amazing meeting people from all over the United States, some from other parts of the world, just coming in and without a stop of a heartbeat just helping.”
By the end of the second week of the project, Love Paradise started delivering the first batch of sheds, thanks to the generosity of several organizations. With each shed weighing 2,500 pounds, delivery was not a quick process. But it was certainly a joyful one—full of gratitude from the recipients.
“This shed means space, a little bit of freedom inside of my little trailer, a little bit of normalcy. I’ve been thinking all night long about what I’m going to put in it, stock in it. It really does mean a lot and I’m really grateful to everybody who’s helped put this together—the volunteers that have come from far and wide, out of state, that have helped build them, and the volunteers that are bringing them and delivering them,” said shed recipient Andrea Hitt, a Paradise resident who lost her home in the fire. “We’re very grateful to Seventh-day Adventists and everybody that’s helped put this together.”
“This project was unique for us in many ways, but ultimately it was special because we had an opportunity to make a huge difference in the lives of more than 200 families who are hurting. At every delivery we hear a story of why the shed is so important to the recipient. And every story makes you realize how desperately needed these sheds were. So we are grateful that we were able to help make this project a reality,” said Fiess.
Love Paradise and Maranatha are planning a second shed project for Paradise in April 2020. To donate or volunteer, check out loveparadise.net and maranatha.org.
Maranatha Volunteers International, based in Roseville, California, is a non-profit, Christian organization that organizes volunteers to build churches, schools, and water wells around the world. Established in 1969, Maranatha has constructed more than 11,000 structures in nearly 90 countries and mobilized more than 85,000 volunteers.
Julie Z. Lee is vice president of marketing at Maranatha Volunteers International.