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OHSU members, community partners mobilize to fulfill statewide mission

Delivering donations to Phoenix and Talent families devastated by wildfires
A seated, masked girl holds a purple stuffed rabbit.
Jaylie, 9, cradles her stuffed rabbit while her father waits for volunteers to collect supplies for their family. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

Comforters. Pillows. Stacks of towels and washcloths. Suitcases and bags. Boxes of diapers, formula, wipes, sanitizer, masks and toothpaste. Packages of new underwear and socks. Gently used coats, sweaters, jeans, shirts. 300 pairs of bright white, brand new Adidas for all ages. Cuddly stuffed animals. Hot Wheels, Lincoln Logs, books and puzzles. And $9,500 in Lowes, Target, Fred Meyer and other gift cards.

Cathy sorting clothes
Cathy Villagomez, administrative director in the OHSU School of Medicine Deans Office, and her husband hopped in the car Saturday morning to help haul donations when the load was too much for the Garcias to handle on her own. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

It was as Leslie Garcia had imagined it when she learned of the Southern Oregon communities of Talent and Phoenix reduced to ash Sept. 8 in a fire that burned so hot it melted the tires out from under the cars. But standing in the Medford/Jackson County Chamber of Commerce parking lot Sept. 26, the assistant chief diversity officer in the OHSU School of Medicine had no time for reflection about the donations she took the lead in collecting for the Oregon Latino/x Leadership Network and the League of United Latin American Citizens, Oregon Chapter.

The families would arrive soon and everything had to be ready.

Four masked volunteers pose together.
From left, Verian Wedeking, outreach program administrator for the OHSU Casey Eye Institute; Leslie Garcia; Marcela Tukarima and Frank Garcia (in the back). (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

Joining Garcia were Rocio Pozo Santa Cruz, OHSU Latinos Unidos Employee Resource Group co-chair and an administrative coordinator at the Unity Center for Behavioral Health; Verian Wedeking, outreach program administrator for the Casey Eye Institute; Cathy Villagomez, administrative director in the OHSU School of Medicine Dean’s Office; Joanna Chadd, an OHSU School of Nursing research assistant, and dozens of other Portland and Medford volunteers.

Wedeking and Garcia recruits Katherine Lam and Daniel Nguyen, co-owners of Bambuza Hospitality Group in Portland, took charge.

A masked male event coordinator with microphone speaks to crowd of volunteers amid tables of donated clothing.
Verian Wedeking, outreach program administrator for the OHSu Casey Eye Institute, explains logistics to the volunteers before families arrive. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

“OK everybody. Here’s what we’re going to do,” said Wedeking to the mask- and glove-wearing volunteers. “The check-in stations are at the front. If families need mental health, legal advice, we bring them over here. Haircuts are on the other side. For the clothing and supplies, the check-in volunteers will take down what the families need and then the runners will retrieve the items. No families inside the yellow tape; only volunteers. Remember, we’ve still got a pandemic going on.”

Serving families

Soon the line of families, six feet between them, stretched down the block on either side of the chamber parking lot.

“This is Veronica and her children and this is what they need,” said check-in volunteer Rocio Diaz, M.D., with the Medford Retina Care Center, introducing a volunteer runner to the family. “Shoes: Boy’s size 6, girl’s size 8, men’s 11, women’s 8. Diapers size 5. Sheets. Towels. Toothpaste.”

White paper with hand-written notes about a family's needed items.
The lists that volunteers used to collect donated items for the families reflect the essentials of starting over. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

The runner surveyed the list, beckoned to the family to step alongside the tape, grabbed a donated suitcase and started filling their order.

For Garcia, these Rogue Valley families are just like those she grew up with in Washington state. Latino families who had built up small landscaping businesses and restaurants or who harvest grapes and other crops in the rolling hills, propelling the state economy. Everything they worked for was scorched nearly beyond recognition when the Almeda Fire ripped through these small communities straddling Oregon 99 just south of Medford.

While the OHSU School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program raised $1,000 for families; OHSU Health Services reached out to vulnerable patients; the School of Nursing and OHSU Foundation rushed to the aid of a half-dozen students who lost their homes in the fires; Garcia tapped Latinos Unidos at OHSU, Dean’s Office colleagues, the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA), non-profits, companies and the community at large. Dozens of OHSU and community members responded with donated items and gift cards.

Wedeking heard Garcia’s call out in a meeting and got the green light from OHSU Casey Eye Institute Director David Wilson, M.D., and Medical Director Mitchell Brinks, M.D. to staff the event with proper COVID-19 precautions.

Wedeking arranged vision screening vouchers through a Medford nonprofit and then got personal protective equipment and signage for the donation distribution event. From Mike Drahota, interim manager of OHSU Delivery and Fleet Services, he got a truck, gas and help from Francisco Merino to load and driver Daniel Schach to haul folding tables and donations in an OHSU truck. 

A masked female volunteer gives a box of diapers and bags of clothing to a masked man.
Leslie Garcia loads up Moises Reyes with clothes and diapers for his infant twins. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

“Leslie was the catalyst,” Wedeking said. “I’ve seen her over the last 13 years, what’s she’s done for the university, pushing diversity and inclusion forward. We know that if Leslie is involved, it’s going to be community-based, community-focused.”

For Garcia, and her husband Frank Garcia, executive director of Immigration Counseling Services and a state-level equity leader, the decision to help was reflexive. The first of Frank Garcia’s dozen calls was to his Southern Oregon University classmate Brad Hicks, president and CEO of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County. They hadn’t seen each other in 32 years. But Hicks offered the chamber parking lot and respite space, food and restrooms for the volunteers and donated toys, duffel bags and personal hygiene products, becoming the first of many Medford partners to jump in.

“These are hardworking families, families who propel Oregon’s economy, families already hard hit by COVID and now the ground beneath their feet is ash,” Leslie Garcia said. “We knew they needed – and they deserved – support. So much need for cultural understanding and compassion. Some lost their identification, birth certificates, and others don’t qualify for federal disaster aid. I knew we as collective could help.”

Narrow escape

Sofia, 15, said she was at her family home near Phoenix with their dogs that morning when the smoky sky darkened. Her mom, Lorena, left the coffee shop where she was working, abandoning her car at a police checkpoint and running to the home on foot. Police gave them five minutes to gather belongings and get out.

Structures, cars and trees blackened by wildfire, with blue sky and a foothill in the background.
Whole neighborhoods in the towns of Phoenix, pictured, and Talent, which straddle Oregon 99 just south of Medford, were wiped out by the Almeda Fire. (OHSU/Erin Hoover Barnett)

Hardly able to see in the darkness, they abandoned finding suitcases in the shed and just grabbed the documents and clothes they could carry.

Now, standing together at the donation site with their teacup chihuahua, Ruby, mother and daughter said they are staying with friends.

“A lot of good people are donating food, gift cards, water,” Lorena said. “I want to cry, but I can’t right now. I don’t have time to think about it.”

Beatriz came to the donation site on behalf of family members now staying with her and others after their apartment building burned to the ground.

“We as a community here are getting through this together,” she said. “Together we are strong.”

By the time the last of more than 500 adults and children were served, the sun had started to set. A man, dark eyes intense, brow furrowed, came by with two of his six children, a single dad who had lost everything. Could they get blankets?  Toothpaste? Pajamas? 

As volunteers scurried for the last of the donated items and a stack of gift cards, the man’s daughter sorted through a plastic box of colorful toys. Looking up at a volunteer, she reached out to accept a bright lavender stuffed rabbit with huge floppy ears.

Cradling the rabbit, she smiled through her mask. And, for a moment, her father’s face lightened.

Donations are being accepted by the League of United Latin American Citizens Wildfire Relief Fund and the MRG Foundation Rogue Value Wildfire Relief Fund.

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