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When the Thomas Fire and debris flow hit our community, it was an all-too-familiar situation for my family, as we had lost our home to the Tea Fire in 2008. The worst part was knowing so many people were facing similar devastation and feeling helpless to do anything about it. Enter Bucket Brigade.

When I heard a that group of volunteers was assembling to help with recovery after the debris flow, I didn’t know what I had to offer but I knew I had to be there — to be there for those in need of help but also for myself. I needed to feel like I was part of something hopeful in the midst of all the loss. I needed to know that there were people around me who cared enough to help strangers in their time of need. I needed community. I wish my family had known these people when we went through such loss at the hands of natural disaster.

It was so healing to be one of the helpers in this situation. Sometimes all I had to offer was a smile and hug to the familiar face of shock and defeat of a survivor. I know how powerful a “me too” can be when you are in that situation, feeling so alone.

Aside from the physical work, the Bucket Brigade has done the next biggest thing we have been able to offer — standing in solidarity with the people of our community who have been affected, to say, “We’ve got your back”.

I have lead Bucket Brigade teams composed of CEOs, engineers, contractors, stay-at-home moms, colleges kids, and a homeless man who returned multiple times. We all learned that natural disaster does not discriminate. Being a part of this process and coming together despite our “differences,” as one community, has been the highlight and unforeseen silver lining of a year that has thrown many punches at us. It is so rare to see this kind of hope, and a gift to be a part of it.

When we arrived at our destination off Olive Mill Road, I was struck by how quiet it was in the neighborhood we were assigned to. Not only did the silence grab my attention but also the emptiness of the homes and landscape. It was a little hard to comprehend. We soon walked up the street to our assigned property. The owner came out to greet us. Much to my surprise, I realized we had gone to high school together. We hugged and laughed that here we were, meeting up after 40 years, under these circumstances.

I told her how sorry I was for her loss. She told us all about the night the mountain came down and described what she and her mother went through. I was struck by her lightheartedness while telling her story. My eyes filled with tears as she continued and I couldn’t believe how she could talk of her experience without falling apart. Her story made me realize why I was there. I wanted to help someone in need.

Her home had a mud line about four feet high along the walls. Her hallway, bedroom, bathroom, dining room, and kitchen were engulfed in solid mud. We grabbed our shovels and got to work. None of the volunteers knew each other, but we worked in unison, shoveling, sorting and removing the mud. No one seemed to ever take a break. We were determined to get the job done. The owner walked around and kept our spirits up. Her positive attitude generated the mood throughout the work day.

After we had come back from lunch I continued working on clearing out the bathroom, now working with only one other volunteer. I was determined to finish; ny goal was to see it clear of mud. My husband was working in the hallway and he too did not want to stop until he saw his job complete. There is something that compels you to keep going, to see the end result. I was also never so happy to see a toilet! We really didn’t know where it was in the bathroom, so to finally find it was a good feeling! The end was in sight — for us, anyway. However, it was just the beginning for the owner.

We left muddy, sore, and tired but so thankful for the Bucket Brigade, which allowed us to help our neighbors in need.

Today I felt the best and most hopeful part of human nature, a sorely needed reassurance in these trying times. It was an honor, even for this atheist, to help dig out the waist-high mud from the Chapel of the Immaculate Heart at La Casa de Maria.

Enormous river boulders, a hundred-million years old, had crashed through the upper wall and piled against the lower wall, the chapel being just the briefest waypoint along their journey of eons. The irony of their timelessness was not lost on me in this place where we seek to reaffirm our own meaningfulness and immortality.

But still the chapel stands, and with the hands, sweat, and muscles of dozens of volunteers, it may yet live on to give comfort, peace, and hope to future generations.

My own journey over the last few years has been a struggle with ephemerality. I moved on from Montecito just a few months ago, happily to move in with my fiancé Colleen, and to lean into future chapters rather than cling to those prior. Yet, the roots I’d grown over those twelve years in Montecito still run deep, and when tragedy struck, my heart couldn’t ignore or be detached.

As John Abraham Powell eloquently kicked off this morning — “Helping hands heal the helpers as much as they do the helped.” — I’m grateful for the opportunity to have served today, and for the leadership (whom I’m proud to call my friends) of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade.

The chapel looked beautiful by the end of the day.

My husband and I, along with a friend, were assigned to dig out a garage. The house had mostly survived, but the garage was full of mud. We had about 10 people working together.

The owners were two Japanese sisters who had inherited the house from their grandparents and had rented it out. They told us to toss most of the garage contents, which we did.

However, after we cleaned out most of the garage, we finally tackled a small room in the back.  The mud had penetrated the bottom of the room and destroyed most of the furniture. Fortunately, we found many family heirlooms, which had been stored on shelfs and had survived. The grandparents had stored several antique Japanese dolls dressed in beautiful silk kimonos in large mahogany and glass cases. We also found family scrapbooks with multigenerational group pictures. The sisters were thrilled to find these family keepsakes, especially the pictures of their ancestors. I think this discovery was the silver lining to their story. Without the mudslide, they might have forgotten about these heirlooms.

I am sure you will hear this often, but the Bucket Brigade healed not only those who were directly impacted, but also those who needed to find a tangible way to help others. Thank you for all your generous hearts, leadership and strength when we needed it most.

I was skiing in Europe when the debris flow occurred. I followed KEYT online and watched CNN news reports to understand what had happened. I felt helpless to “do something” about the horror going on in my hometown, and a profound sense of grief and guilt about being so far away when so many I knew were suffering.

I’m probably on Abe’s email contacts because of past environmental work. Maybe that’s why I got notice of the need for volunteers immediately upon my return home. I was grateful to take my shovels and rakes and meet up with others to get to work. The mud was still very wet. Hand to hand, we literally passed hundreds of buckets full of watery mud from a buried living room to enormous piles outside, which were to be trucked away.

That first day, the comradery was infectious. We worked so hard and appreciated our aching muscles and blistered hands with hugs, some laughter, and lots of encouragement. We reminded each other to take breaks and be safe in the middle of a harrowing scene of natural destruction. We were so happy to be able to work together and to do something positive.

I came back every weekend for about six weeks. The mud got harder and its removal more difficult. We moved from indoor to outdoor restoration. But the attitude of the volunteers, the shock of being able to understand the massive strength of the flow, and our small role in doing what we could for victims, was a constant.

It was wonderful to talk to people in the community about the work. There was so much appreciation for our efforts, menial and filthy as the jobs were. The feelings I got of being useful, even in a small way, and certainly as only one cog in a large machine, were so valuable.   Together, with each of us just working steadily to do our small part, we accomplished an enormous amount. Together, we really helped people, but more importantly, I think, reminded ourselves and others about the meaning of community.

Thank you, Bucket Brigade!

“Get me the specs, and I’ll get you the power.” That was the first “let’s get it done” order I received from Abe Powell. It was the middle of February 2018, and I was searching for three-phase power and a parking spot for a 20-foot industrial freezer.

Up until this point I was calling around to businesses in Montecito that Google Maps showed had a fairly large parking lot and asking if their building had three-phase power. It wasn’t a very effective strategy, but I did get a chance to talk to a lot of members of the community about my conservation project, which was aimed at mold remediation and salvage of items being dug out of the debris flow. What I learned is that residents of Montecito were committed to helping their fellow community members and were wary of new pop up projects, with the exception of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade.

I became used to telling the story of how I ended up running around looking for freezer parking: In the beginning of February, I was referred to local volunteers who knew a couple of people with six items they wanted conserved from the debris flow. The volunteers were looking for an estimate to repair these, with a possibility for more to come. A conservator can’t give an estimate for work without seeing the item first, so I proposed a free assessment day, which took place at Montecito Library. Members of the community could bring anything they wanted, and I would help where I could and give out resources and contacts for other conservators with different specialties.

An hour into the day I stopped and asked one of the volunteers, “Does anyone realize there is a huge mold problem going on?” Most of the people there were surprised by my mold diagnosis of their objects. I was surprised, too, though I shouldn’t have been. If I had stopped to think about the mechanics of the disaster, it is the only natural conclusion. This was the result of a storm, which meant water — the life-giver of mold. Mud and debris blanketed the town, which prevented the objects from drying and created a micro environment. That, along with the items themselves providing a food source, created the perfect breeding grounds for mold and insects.

As I looked around the room and tried to advise people on what to do, I realized that in this instance they were completely alone without help or guidance. Not from a lack of caring or funding, but from the lack of a trained professional locus point. The week following this event I thought a lot, called other conservators, did some research, and decided to try a project that had never been done before — conservation support on a community basis.

First I talked to Christian De Brer at the Fowler Museum who recommended Martin Containers for a portable freezer. They had run similar remediation program, and he was chock full of helpful advice. Martin Containers wanted to help as much as possible and put two freezers on hold for me at an extremely deep discount. The project also received seed funding from Congregation B’nai B’rith to get it off the ground and acquire the first wave of supplies.

One freezer was going to the Sheriff’s department, and the other was to be located somewhere in Montecito. I called Sherman Hansen of Santa Barbara County Parks and asked for his opinion of the next five places on my to-call list. He put me in touch with Abe.

Abe immediately recognized the need for a conservation service and upon reading the electrical specs for the industrial freezers said there was nothing in Montecito that would be able to handle a power load like that. But, the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade would rent generators capable of handling the power and pay for them. This incredibly generous offer meant that I was able to take Westmont College up on its offer to park the freezer on the campus.

For intake of items, Geoff Green got me in touch with Ben Romo, who offered free studio space in the Montecito Center for Preparedness, Recovery and Rebuilding which the County of Santa Barbara was setting up for residents. After a couple weeks of cold calling the pieces had fallen into place, and all that was left was to fire up the generators.

Waiting for the generator delivery was the first time Abe and I had a chance to chat more in depth about my project, and he was asking all the questions I had gotten used to from residents trying to suss out my intentions and qualifications.

My family is from Buellton, so Santa Barbara and Montecito were near and dear to my heart, which checked off the local credentials. I graduated with a Masters in Conservation, Works of Art on Paper, from Camberwell College of London in 2016; check for professional credentials. I just finished a fellowship at UCLA library at the end of January 2018; check for acceptable reason for having months of free time.

Abe’s next question was one that I hadn’t encountered yet, “Are you worried about heading up a project for months to help people you’ve never met?”

“Oh, no. I did humanitarian aid work in Kosovo after the war, so this should be old hat,” was my response. Which we both looked a little startled at. Abe was startled because this wasn’t the answer he was expecting, and I was surprised that I had offered up my Kosovo history to a stranger.

Kosovo isn’t something I talk about much. People are wildly fascinated and I never feel like there is an appropriate way to tell them that their latest interesting tidbit left me with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Basically, I spent nine months there with my family, and war zones are completely awful, hence the trauma.

My casual answer needed to be amended a little when I did clarify that I was worried about my C-PTSD, which made it hard for me to volunteer to help people as I had in Kosovo. But I have spent years getting better, and since I was going to be helping objects and not people, I was confident this was something I could do.

I officially started accepting drop-off objects on March 8, and the need was readily apparent. My space was soon flooded with items, and I was grateful for volunteers and my previous database experience because those two things were essential to the survival of the project.

Over the next few weeks the relationship between 805 Conservation and the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade became more formalized as they became our nonprofit umbrella and provided the rest of the funding needed for the project. Now I could just focus on the objects.

My specialty is paper-based objects. As I’m sure you can imagine, every type of object came my way while doing this project. I am fortunate that conservation as a profession is obsessed with sharing knowledge. I quickly found a group of conservators with different specialties who were happy to share their knowledge and experience. They guided me through textiles, metal pieces, ceramic, paintings, and stuffed animals.

From the very beginning I wanted the project to be free for the public and for there to be no restrictions on what people could bring me. As soon as you got involved with the disaster, stories of the cost, in a monetary sense, were rampant. People felt like breathing came with a bill. I wanted cost to not be factor to people getting the help they needed with something that could have health and safety implications for them. Since this was Bucket Brigade’s feeling as well, it just confirmed the synergy of our working groups.

Having no restrictions on what people brought me caught everyone off guard. Pretty much everyone asked me, “Are you sure about that? Do you think the families will take advantage?” To which I replied that, I had faith in the families. And they proved me right.

Every family who brought me items self-edited what they brought. Understanding that the service was free actually made them more decisive about what they wanted conserved. They didn’t want to overwhelm me, and they wanted to make sure I had time for as many families as possible. As the project went on and the work piled high, families would bring me snacks and drinks in the hot afternoons. They would bring me supplies if they noticed I had been running low and would occasionally do small tasks, like taking out my full trash. And I got many, many hugs as the project began to wear on me.

Remember how I said that I was confident that my C-PTSD wouldn’t be a problem because I was helping objects and not people? Well what I didn’t realize at the time that fixing objects does help people. I had no comprehension of the impact it would have or the bond it would forge between us all.

How do we connect with other people? It often begins with sharing personal details. Then you find a point of common ground, and you share more until a connection is forged. Going through a family’s personal belongings is a free fall into family memories. Then, when I would meet up with the families, they would tell me the stories that went with the objects. Over time general concern for strangers became a deep caring for friends.

I started to get stressed out, and I was tired all the time. But, I still had good boundaries and wasn’t having panic attacks, so it wasn’t my C-PTSD being triggered. When talking with crisis counselors from California Hope 805, who worked in the same building, they suggested I might have compassion fatigue. Dr. Charles Figley defined compassion fatigue as a “state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

It was a light-bulb moment for me. That was what I was feeling, and it made perfect sense. The heart has endless reserves to care about people, but the body and mind need a bit of patience and understanding while they catch up. And I hadn’t been giving myself any time or space to catch up. An essential component of moving through compassion fatigue is self-care and self-compassion.

Now I debated about including this bit about my emotions. It seemed pointless to write about, but so far every time I’ve talked about compassion fatigue, multiple people have chimed in and said, “That’s what I’ve been feeling, too.” It is a common set of feelings among anyone who jumps in to help. And since most of us are caregiver type personalities, we never pause and assess our own needs. So, if you are using this as a jumping-off point in your own community, look up compassion fatigue, use the techniques to stop it from happening, and help others.

Caring begets caring, and through this project I was fortunate to join a chain that wound throughout the entire community and worked to make sure survivors and responders alike got everything they needed. I got support and help from my fellow nonprofits, volunteers, and the families. They all collaboratively gave me everything I needed to finish out the project and safely return the objects to the family members. This project has been one of the best of my life. I know I will carry the connections formed, the love felt, and the stories told with me for the rest of my life.

Having been part of the Tea Fire recovery community, my email was included in Abe’s first call for help after the debris flow. I noted the details, put a shovel, mask, and gloves in my car, and headed over that first weekend. Things were chaotic all around Montecito, but the check-in table was an oasis of calm, though it was clear that things were being worked out on the fly. I got my group armband of red tape and was directed to the targeted properties.

There were little groups of people laboring in almost every yard. Some places were more messed up than others. Many of the tasks seemed overwhelming. So I looked for something doable. Two volunteers were starting to clear a walkway. The house hadn’t been flooded, but there was a lot of mud between the street and the front door. Making it possible for the homeowners to get in and out without getting muddy looked like an achievable task, and I stepped in. It was difficult to determine the path of the buried walkway. I challenged my fellow volunteers to see if we could reach a little landmark — a walkway light sticking out of the mud about four feet away — in 15 minutes. The pace quickened, and we beat our goal. This became our tool for the rest of the day: Pick a bite-sized task, set a time goal, and get after it. Then we’d take a short break before diving in again. Each time, we seemed to gain momentum, and the spirit of accomplishment gave us energy in spite of the physical effort.

Each little zone of volunteers seemed to self-govern, with groups making casual introductions and working together. Some would wander between projects. More organized groups worked in conjunction with heavy machinery. By lunch, I had been at four different homes, and each was showing signs of improvement.

People’s faces carried grim optimism. The air was not light. Humor was of the gallows variety.

Once while working on clearing a porch and walkway as a machine cleared the driveway, the woman of the house came to the front door and shrieked her approval. The whole area perked right up.

After clearly several walkways, I wandered up the street to where a car was parked just off a driveway that had been cleared by a skid loader. I asked if the car started. Someone went in the house — where the owner was attempting to recover items from the muck — and returned with the keys. It started, but the wheels spun — the car had been floated by the mud surging underneath it. There were four of us, and we started clearing mud from in front of the wheels, which resulted in the car settling some. When we had cleared the front of the chassis, we tried driving it off the mud again. The owner came out and shook her head: “There’s no point in doing this. I don’t have my driver’s license. It’s lost in the mud.”

Over the next ten minutes she made one self-defeating statement after another. I realized that it was the affected people who needed the most attention. If we only we had had as many skilled counselors as we had shovels. While relieved to be alive, or that their house was still standing, or happy to express their gratitude, they were all in shock, overwhelmed by the circumstances. Even those who had suffered little direct damage were distressed by the loss of life and damage to their community. The aftermath was psychologically and emotionally intense.

The real strength of the volunteers was their indefatigable sympathy and optimism. Moving buckets of mud was just an action that kept their hands busy while their presence and hearts held the space of a better future for those whose lives had been upended. At one point, I suggested to the woman that she take a deep breath, and focus on that. When we got her car out of the mud and onto the street, she still expressed concern that she shouldn’t drive it without her license. I suggested that if she got pulled over, she would have the sympathy of any officer once she explained the circumstances. She remained doubtful.

That first day, we pulled out several cars, cleared a lot of walkways, and generally learned some processes to make our efforts more effective. The second weekend we learned that in spite of the exclusion zone — set up by law enforcement to keep looters away — someone had gotten into the neighborhood and stolen Bucket Brigade wheelbarrows and other equipment.

Forms and paperwork got refined, and a leadership structure emerged. A daily ritual of briefing, debriefing, and pep talks was established. There was food made by other volunteers. My favorite was a tray of wraps, each with a personal note from the teenagers who had prepared them. By the second month, things felt stable and organized, almost regimented. The parking lot at Manning Park would fill with volunteers. Vans would shuttle them to locations. Soon enough, there were new projects, like clearing mud from around oak trees. There were days when there were just as many people with cameras documenting what we were doing, or at least it seemed that way. That turned out to be the day Jack Johnson would drop by to help.

One hopes that such occasions will be rare, and that a how-to guide will be published by the original Bucket Brigade leaders, because we know that things like this happen anywhere and consistently enough — but responses like the Bucket Brigade are few, despite the good will and nature of most people.