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As the Carr Fire ravaged the Redding area almost a year ago, a group of young people in Southern Illinois witnessed its devastation on their local news.
The heartbreaking photos and stories stayed with them, and when the group chose a location for its yearly mission service trip, they selected Redding.
“We have no association with California, other than the fire was so big it made our local news,” said Becca Braundmeier, youth director for Exhale, which comprises high school students from St. Paul United Church of Christ in Staunton, Ill., and Salem United Church of Christ in Alhambra, Ill.
She reached out to Janet Chapman, pastor of First Christian Church in Redding, offering the help of 24 teens for a week in July for Carr Fire relief and restoration projects. Chapman worked with Wendy Dickens, volunteer coordinator for the NorCal Community Recovery Team (CRT), to make sure the team’s lodging and meals were covered and projects found that matched their skills and abilities.
“This was a much bigger trip than we’d ever done before,” Braundmeier noted. “It was our first time going West, and our first trip flying.”
Last year Exhale traveled to Houston to help with relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Other projects have taken them to Florida, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, and Tennessee.
“The trips are our chance to practice what we preach,” said team member Tori Lynn, 18, from Alhambra. Redding was her fifth mission trip with Exhale. “Every week we talk about loving others, and this is our chance to do that.”
The group conducts fundraisers throughout the year to pay for their trips, receiving some money from the churches. “Any fundraiser you can think of, we’ll do it,” Braundmeier said, listing a haunted house, pancake breakfast, chili cook-off, prom dress sale, trivia night, and raffle among the events that helped raise money for their California trip.
When they got to Redding, the group set up base at First Christian Church and were welcomed with open arms, a fully stocked fridge, and “multitude of snacks,” participants said. Church member Bob Moore also worked with the group for two days, providing invaluable help, they said.
The group—which included five adults in addition to the teens—quickly got to work. Team members spent three days on Marci Fernandez’s property. Fernandez, who was featured in this Shasta County Health & Human Services Agency video six months after the Carr Fire, lost her husband of 42 years three months before the fire destroyed their home near Keswick. They had lived there for 17 years.
“The church had cut out articles about what happened during the Carr Fire, so we found out about Marci before we met her,” Tori said. “Seeing everything firsthand, getting to meet these people and hear their stories, really made an impact. We felt Marci’s heartache, and it made us ready to do more work.”
Exhale members helped cut trees, move and clear brush, remove invasive species, and level areas. They also helped build a shed for Fernandez.
“This group was amazing and hard-working,” said Dickens, of NorCal CRT. “It was our first volunteer group from out of the area, so it was great to have one that was willing to do whatever and to be flexible with what they did and where they went.”
Other projects included building a ramp for resident Bruce Brown, also displaced by the fire.
“We learned that he had also stayed at the church we stayed at after his house burned,” said Dave Deweese, 18, of Staunton. “That was just another personal connection we made that was kind of cool.”
The group helped another woman cut and move wood on her property. She had been working long days on her own to clear the land. “She was ecstatic we were there,” Braundmeier said.
In addition, Exhale members helped a park crew with cleanup at Caldwell Park and worked with the city of Redding cutting fencing and PVC pipes for a future deep watering project.
Everywhere they went, the young people were struck by two things.
“We did a lot of driving in every direction,” Braundmeier said. “Every day I would hear the kids pointing out mountains and burned trees. We could not even fathom seeing all of it on fire, to see entire mountainsides filled with flames.
“It was amazing and heartbreaking but also very special to do this kind of work,” she said.
Dave, who was on his fourth trip with Exhale, said they also drove through Paradise—where the devastating Camp Fire hit four months after the Carr Fire—on their way to Redding. “It was eye-opening, humbling, and sobering,” he said. “It really made the work we’re doing feel special and unique. I would encourage everyone to do it themselves.”
The group also commented on the helpfulness and generosity they received from the people of Redding.
“Any time we had a need, people were so helpful,” Dave said. “One day a blade broke on a chainsaw, and when we went to a local hardware store and told them what we were doing, they donated it. No fees.”
As group members cleaned up trash in Caldwell Park, a steady stream of cyclists and walkers passed them on the river trail, Tori said. “In an hour, only four people didn’t make a point to say good morning or thank-you,” she said. “People were so incredibly supportive, with everyone smiling and shaking our hands.”
Though the temperatures were in the upper 90s and low 100s, it didn’t bother the Midwesterners.
“The dry heat was like a vacation for us,” Tori said. “Being out of the humidity was so nice.”
The group was able to spend some time paddleboarding and kayaking on Whiskeytown Lake, said Tristan Moore, 18, of Staunton. “It was phenomenal,” he said. And on their final day, they traveled to the coast—“we’re going to California, so ‘are we going to the beach?’ was their first question,” Braundmeier said.
The Exhale group flew home on Saturday. Dave, Tori and Tristan will attend universities and colleges in Illinois in the fall, majoring in business (Dave), musical theater and communication (Tori), and information technology (Tristan).
“Every year we have a theme for our mission trip,” Braundmeier said. “This year’s theme was ‘love wins.’ I didn’t plan that or know anything about Redding when it was selected. But everywhere we went, people in Redding showed us that truly, love wins.”