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Updated: Monday, 17 Sep 2012, 3:06 PM CDT
Published : Monday, 03 Sep 2012, 5:37 PM CDT
BASTROP, Texas (KXAN) - Labor Day Weekend 2011: Ruth Rodgers was returning from a road trip, after delivering her daughter to college. She topped the crest of a hill just outside Bastrop and was stunned by the enormous cloud of black smoke hovering over the town.
Farther down the highway, Rodgers came upon a family fleeing the flames. She helped family members lead their horses to safety and then returned to help them drive their vehicles out of the flames’ reach.
Then she noticed authorities rushing to set up barricades on State Highway 71 and she pitched in to help them.
By now, text messages were flying between members of various Bastrop school booster clubs. People were gathering at first one spot, then another, looking for ways to help.
In the days that followed, Rodgers and her friend, Laurie Eskew, found a spot under a tree and pitched a small tent and started helping fire victims fill out Federal Emergency Management Agency applications for government assistance.
Trucks started pulling up, loaded from floor to ceiling with tons and tons of donated goods. Among them, a huge event tent that the women had erected at the entrance to the hard hit Tahitian Village neighborhood to house their relief operation.
Then the rains came. Rodgers and Eskew rushed off to buy tarps to protect the donated goods from the water that blew in under the tent.
Realizing that if they were to keep meeting the overwhelming needs of their community, they would need a brick and mortar site. They found a large space in a small shopping center at 201 Childers Street, just off Hwy. 71.
The owner was in India at the time, but they were able to contact him by telephone and he offered the place, rent free, for the rest of the year. Come New Year’s Day, when it the time to start paying rent arrived, area churches started picking up the tab.
Meanwhile, fire victims who had felt abandoned when the tent disappeared from the “top of Tahitian,” began to learn about the Childers Street store. They descended on the place in waves.
The Bastrop County Fire Relief Distribution Center was born.
But in nearby Austin, the Salvation Army was doing something unheard of: begging people to stop donating relief supplies and goods.
“The first message to the public,” Capt. Mike Morton said, “is: ‘Stop! Stop! We have enough; we have more than enough.’”
“We were overloaded,” Rodgers recalled. “We were extremely overloaded. A lot of people don't understand that we appreciated that help. We did and we did get it. It ran through this very center right here. Those donations that people did drop off, it did hit the families; they got their stuff.”
But that was a year ago. Things are different now. Those truckloads of stuff stopped coming months ago. But a steady stream of smaller donors still arrives every single day, dropping off clothes, books, toys, furniture. Bins and shelves are laden with dog and cat foods.
Among the donors: Betty Pearce, who barely escaped the horrid fate experienced by so many of her neighbors.
“It (the fire) came right up to our house,” she said. “God had a border all around us. We stayed there and prayed and we're OK.”
But if Pearce’s home escaped the physical damage, she still suffered, watching the pain of her neighbors.
So she began making regular trips to the center after repeated cullings of the accoutrements of her life. Today, it was some plastic bags stuffed with children’s playthings.
“It's amazing,” she said, “how much stuff you have stashed away that you don't use. And I had all these collections for kids and stuff. So, you know, let the kids have it.”
Behind Pearce in the non-air-conditioned building there was a large fan, struggling to move the hot summer air. Behind it, stood two large refrigerators full of dozens of brown organic eggs, rejected by grocery stores because they are just a bit too small.
Fire victim James Hellam helped himself.
"You don't want to be greedy," he said, "so I just take a couple (of dozen) every time I come. Two dozen eggs will last me four days. It depends on whether my grandsons are visiting me or not.
"They only eat organic so it's nice that they have organic eggs here. My daughter's a vegetarian and my son only eats fish or something like that, you know. I just do what I'm supposed to do when he's out here visiting me.
"Next I'll get dog food and then I'm on my way, another good visit in the center."
Nearby, survivor Carol Schumacher laid claim to a few pieces of crown molding to use in rebuilding her house.
“We lost everything,” she said. We lost our home; we lost the shop, the kids' stuff, you know, everything, burnt up, gone.
“Luckily, we've had really good friends and they've been there for us and community and other people and this place. And we had insurance so we're lucky there, too.”
One of Schumacher’s friends is Lorraine Joy, another wildfire victim who has also made good use of the distribution center.
"I kind of feel
sad when I go when I go out to my property,” she said. My kids…grew up there and we lost everything.
"In the beginning I was able to get all kinds of stuff I needed, like a pot and a pan. The first time I went to cook I realized I didn't have a potato peeler, you know. You don't realize all the things you have in the kitchen that you gathered through the years."
Of course, many of those things were for sale at inexpensive prices just down the road at the Bastrop Walmart store, but Joy just couldn’t muster the energy to go inside.
"I was so overwhelmed." she said. “I didn't even know where to start. So in the beginning, it was really nice to be able to come to a place where other people were having the same problem and going through the same thing.”
Rodgers, the center director, pointed out that area stores stood to benefit even when the victims used the donated goods to get back on their feet.
“If they come in here and they spend time in here and they shop and they get just a bag of dog food, that's $10, $15 that they didn't have to go to the store and spend. But then they can take that $10 or $15 they would have spent and they can apply that to something else that they need, or go shopping in our community, you know.
“If we can help these families get back to their normal life, then they will go back to their normal way of shopping.”
That’s how it’s working out for Mike and Joyce Gerold. Their home destroyed by the fire, they moved in with their daughter and her family. The couple made good use out of the distribution center for months. For Joyce, virtually every stitch of clothes she wears came from donations.
“I go to church and people compliment me on my clothes,” she giggled, “and I just smile because I know where they're from and I just think this is such a blessing.”
And it’s not just the essentials, either.
“I needed some bed risers, not for a bed because we're still sleeping on couches with my daughter," said Joyce Gerold. "There are eight of us in the house. But I needed bed risers to raise up a table because I do some quilting and I needed it higher up. And I came one day and there they were, good as new!”
Now, though, the Gerolds still stop by the distribution center several times a week just to visit.
"We stay and talk to people and just share, you know, give some other people a pat on the back and a hug or whatever and say, 'We all can get through this,'" said Mike Gerold.
"It helps them and it helps yourself when you give, too."
Across the center, Joy agreed.
“I found a lot of caring people that helped give us advice,” she recalled. “I found other people that were going through the same thing that we were all going through. So I not only found goods, I found people to help each other. I found a good community spirit that was coming together to try to help each other.”
For her part, director Rodgers sees no end in sight. She makes a whopping $11.88 an hour through the federally funded National Emergency Grant program administered through the Texas Workforce Commission . The program funds her work and that of two other employees for a total of 1040 hours each. After that, they’re on their own.
So Rodgers is learning how to be a grant writer and looking everywhere she can for more funding.
“We still do need help,” she said. “It's a long time before these families are going to be OK.”
And even when they are, others, hopefully in smaller numbers, will still take their place.
“We don't just help the families who lost their homes in the Bastrop County Complex Fire,” Rodgers said. “We also have 18 other families registered who've lost their homes since that fire. And so I want to be able to be here for the people who continue to lose their homes. Because how many times do we have fires, how many times do we have floods?”
So from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8, people will gather in the center’s parking lot for a fundraiser , featuring live music, barbecue and a silent auction.
When it is over, everyone will get a goodnight’s sleep, wake up and go back to work as the recovery from their terrible, terrible, unimaginatively terrible nightmare enters its second year.
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