Earlier this month a group of 32 high school age kids spent a sweaty and tough weekend helping pour cement, handle rebar and sort and bag food for Habitat for Humanity and the Redwood Empire Food Bank, tasks the teens wanted to help with after seeing the devastation of the Sonoma Complex Fire that swept through Coffey Park last year.
The group of students, chaperones and group leaders made the eight-hour trip from Encinitas - a coastal town between La Jolla and Carlsbad, to Sonoma County for their annual mission trip with the Bethlehem Lutheran Church and St. Andrews Church.
Being from Southern California, the students are used to experiencing large wildfire events and one group leader on the trip, Emily Erisman, says it almost seems like the norm.
“You get used to it here. It is sad, but true and I think of these kids now knowing they’ve had that scary feeling of evacuating,” Erisman mused.
Yet, living with this norm also means students come with a level of empathy and understanding and so when they were asked where they wanted to go for their mission excursion, they voiced the desire to help a community that had been greatly impacted by wildfire.
“We do something like this every summer to experience new geography and people,” says Pastor Laura Ziehl of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church. “We also live in a fire zone and when we saw the devastation here we were just heart sick and wanted to do something to help.”
And help they did with a set of homes being refurbished in Coffey Park, one of the harder hit neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.
16 groups of students helped with the rebuilding process by helping to build furniture and others helped to work with the structure of the homes. At the end of half a day students managed to put up seven walls and place foundation.
“That was very hard work… but we felt like we could make a difference. Habitat for Humanity had planned out a day’s worth of work for us and then we finished it in two hours, Erisman said proudly.
And for those who couldn’t help with the more labor-intensive work, students spent their time sorting through and packaging food for the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which is currently helping to keep fire evacuees fed with healthy food options.
“We bagged apples and sorted about 200 bags,” Erisman said.
According to Ziehl, the group estimates they managed to package around seventy to eighty pounds of food and that the kids were thoughtful and considerate when assembling the food boxes.
During their weekend of work, July 30 to Aug. 3, the Cross and Crown Church Lutheran Church on Snyder Lane hosted the students, providing them a place to sleep and rest.
“They called and said their mission trip was up here (and we accepted),” said Kim Burns of Cross and Crown.
Burns also mentioned that Ziehl had previously been a Rohnert Park pastor before moving to Southern California, so hosting the students was a good way to reconnect.
Ziehl said overall of the experience that she is quite proud of the “fabulous” work the group completed.
“We thought if we could aim to help then we could ease people’s pain… and really make a difference,” Ziehl said.