CCC Opens Soquel Conference Center
By Sue Schramm
The coronavirus pandemic led to social distancing and the cancellation of Soquel Camp Meeting, and then the hot days of summer brought even more trials throughout California. Nearly 12,000 lightning strikes started 560 fires throughout the state. This danger became all too real in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Monday, August 17, with the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
“Michael Beaton, director of general services from Santa Cruz County, called on Wednesday explaining that they were in need of an additional evacuation center,” recalled Todd Gallemore, Soquel Conference Center (SCC) facilities director. The Central California Conference (CCC) officers agreed to help and opened up the 70 cabins and full hook-up RV spaces in SCC’s Central City to the evacuees. “To open the doors to the community is something that the conference has wanted to do for a very long time,” Gallermore continued. “We have been looking for ways to be a better neighbor and to serve the community in a positive, constructive way.”
The next day, Mark Larson, from the county Department of Human Services, was onsite when the evacuee intake began. The evacuees arrived obviously distraught and filled with anxiety and fear. “It was very chaotic to handle all the needs at first, because the fire incident was so big,” Larson explained. “On day one, all we had to give out was an MRE [Meal Ready-to-Eat] and a bottle of water. We are now having a catering service come in with meals three times a day that includes treats. There have been exercise classes, movie nights, and even classes on how to improve your mental health.”
Capacity peaked at 540 people for several days. Many arriving evacuees were overcome
with grief and fear, and they were often without even the basic provisions. Amazingly, there were no shortfalls of essential needs. Each of the county’s needs were met without even being asked. Although county supplies were minimal at the start, they soon multiplied through generous donations from individuals and businesses.
The overflow of donations meant that the main auditorium became a warehouse. The Esperanza meeting room transformed into the Operation Center. A makeshift stage was set up on Row 9 of Central City for the various programs provided by pastors.
The process required a great deal of collaboration between the county, other pastors from surrounding areas, and community organizations and businesses. “I cannot take credit for what has happened here,” Larson said. “It could not have been done without the support of the Seventh-day Adventists, church ministries, and the other county employees that have been performing above and beyond my wildest expectations. People even described that it is almost like being on a cruise because they were treated so wonderfully.”
As soon as Sam Smith, pastor of Watsonville church, received permission from the county, he was able to set up a Share and Prayer Tent. Here, a safe place provided spiritual care for the many who were understandably upset to the point of tears.
One evacuee, who wished to remain anonymous, came by the prayer tent. He shared his fears and frustrations about losing his home. When Smith asked him if he believed in prayer, he said, “Yes, but right now I’m too angry at God to pray.” Smith told him that he understood and that he could come by the prayer booth anytime. Several nights passed, and both he and his wife attended the three-day evening series by Pierre Steenberg, CCC evangelism director, on “How to Cope with Grief and Loss.” After hearing Eddy Perez, CCC evangelist, share his testimony of how God had been with him in the midst of pain, this evacuee finally told Smith, “You know, I’ve always believed in God, but He was never a priority. Now this happened and it made me angry with Him. However, you people showed up and just loved us. You did all of these things for us, total strangers, with no strings attached. You are helping me to understand that God is with me even in the midst of this horrible situation. I want to seek God for myself more deeply now.”
Antonio Huerta, CCC vice president for ministries, struck up a conversation with a couple who also had attended Steenberg’s talks. Feeling much the same as the other evacuees, they explained, “Our house has been destroyed and we have no place to go.” Nevertheless, the wife thanked Huerta, explaining that they had come to this evacuation center devasted but had been given a new faith in God.
Huerta also found out that a young man volunteering at the resource center had been there all night long. At 20 years old, his passion and compassion were evident when he responded, “My sleep is not as important as serving the evacuees. My brothers and sisters are suffering right now.”
Ken, another evacuee, shared with tears as he was checking out, “I just wanted to thank these folks for their mighty fine hospitality. They met us here with open arms, smiles on their face, catered to every whim, and with every possible thing we could possibly need. I just cannot say enough, but you guys have been awesome.”
Gina Jett, a Boulder Creek resident, shared, “The entire town was evacuated Monday night. Seeing me on social media, Manuel Garcia, a former student of mine from Monterey Bay Academy, reached out to let me know our neighborhood was safe. As a firefighter, he and his team are working double and triple shifts trying to hold the fire, and we are so grateful. I think God can use this event to help us be our best selves and work together as a community.”
James Salazar, a Bonny Doon resident, shared that his home was a total loss. With only the clothes on their backs, he and his girlfriend and their animals sought refuge at SCC. With emotion, he commented, “It is so nice to be here where people are taking care of you. It makes going through something like this so much easier. I don’t know where I’d be if I weren’t right here, right now.”
By the end of August, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire was 43% contained, but 85,218 acres had burned. More than 1,100 structures were destroyed, and 921 of those were single-family residences. Once the evacuation orders began to be lifted in some areas, most people at the SCC were able to return home. However, it still sheltered 200 to 250 individuals who could no longer return to their destroyed homes.
“This is a truly remarkable facility. You have been blessed by God to have this vast property to use for God’s purposes,” Larsen said. “Todd, Jeremy, Derek, everybody has just been truly been remarkable. I will be forever changed. I am hoping and praying that these relationships will continue on in the future.”
As Ramiro Cano, CCC president, commented, “I praise God that in the midst of a pandemic and the devastating fires, the Soquel Conference Center has become a center of holy influence within the county of Santa Cruz. Designated as an evacuation site, it provided ample opportunities to be engaged in services of compassion to alleviate the hurting and to forge and deepen our relationships with the community at large.”
Indeed, God’s hand could be seen at every turn by those who were working side by side to humbly serve the needs of the evacuees. Truly, CCC’s vision, “Reflecting Christ. Transforming Communities,” was demonstrated over and over during this tragic event.