Our Future After the Fire: Recovering together

When the Camp Fire hit, thousands of people lost their homes and needed food, clothing and shelter. The youth pastor at a local church organized people to help survivors in the immediate aftermath. Now – that group has evolved into a long term recovery organization.

Posted: Sep 5, 2019 9:05 PM

CHICO, Calif. - When the Camp Fire hit, thousands of people lost their homes and needed food, clothing and shelter. The youth pastor at a local church organized people to help survivors in the immediate aftermath. Now – that group has evolved into a long term recovery organization.

"One of my goals is to – I think in life is to give what I have in order to lift others up and that's what we're aiming to do," said Matt Plotkin.

Executive Director Matt Plotkin has lived in Chico for 4 years.

"My job is to wrangle and oversee and push and drive our vision," he said.

Plotkin was a youth pastor at the Bidwell Presbyterian Church. When the Camp Fire hit - the church opened its doors.

Soon after he connected with the American Red Cross.

"Through that connection and through a couple others a bunch of us got together on Thursday morning a week after the fire in the basement of the Diamond Hotel in Downtown Chico and that was the genesis of what became a long term recovery group," Plotkin said.

Cal OES and FEMA helped guide the group and on December 28 it officially became a long term recovery group.

Plotkin resigned from the church to take on a full-time roll in the recovery group.

"That was a difficult decision to make 'cause I really enjoyed my job and my colleagues and the community I was serving but I also saw that this was for lack of a better word a higher calling," he said.

Plotkin's new job has something in common with his job as youth pastor.

"Junior high kids can, of course, be scattered and to bring junior high kids together and get them around one thing I think takes a skill and talent that most people don't have the patience for and a lot of what I do is help get a lot of organizations together that have never collaborated or worked together," Plotkin said.

Plotkin said he's learning as he goes.

"I'm not a trained counselor I'm not a trained case manager what I have learned and what I do know is that just listening to people is something that really benefits them in their own recovery," he said. "Not telling them they're going to be ok I don't know if they're going to be ok I hope that they do recover and I'm here to help provide that our organization is here to help provide that," Plotkin said. 

A long term recovery group basically makes sure the people who need help from the government – get it.

"The government doesn't do individual assistance very well and they really want to lean into the community finding recovery resource so what they can do is stay in their lane of overseeing public works and public recovery," Plotkin said. "We just look at households and individuals who were survivors of the Camp Fire and figure out how to help them and one of the ways we provide that assistance is through case management."

There will be nine locally based case management organizations at the resource center in Chico.

The main group being the Northern Valley Catholic Social Service.

Some of its members have a strong connection to the people they're trying to help.

"I'm a Camp Fire survivor so it greatly means a lot to me," Shar Daniels from Paradise said.

Daniels is from Paradise and understands what they're going through.

"I want them to understand the level of empathy that I have for them I'm not just here on their case and going to push them through the process I'm actually here in a bigger dynamic for them," she said.

"As a survivor I wanted to give back I wanted to help the people like me get through all of this," Camp Fire Survivor Stacy Cook from Magalia said, "That's why I started doing it I needed to keep myself busy I needed to do something because my community was gone my church was gone."

"It means that I'm rebuilding my entire community and I'm not just walking away," Daniels said.

Volunteers have to help out locally throughout the state, but one couple moved here from Utah for a year to devote their time to this community.

"Currently right now we have a couple helping us from southern Utah and they've been great they're a retired couple and they're here for an entire year in giving of their skills and talents to us," Plotkin said.

There are more than 200 organizations involved with the longterm recovery group.

"And their job is to build that recovery plan and walk that household through the recovery and get them to their landing point and once they're at their landing point their case is closed," he said.

Plotkin said if they run into a roadblock, the caseworkers come together and work it out so everyone's needs are met.

"And those partners will say I got that one or they need a whole house built and they were totally uninsured all they got was the max grant from FEMA at three, four thousand or $900," Plotkin said. "So there are different partners who are saying we are willing to provide a brand new house and we'll help with the rebuild but other situations they might just need a car ok well lets figure out the funding for that new car for that household and then close that case and get them off."

Plotkin said recovery from the Camp Fire is a marathon, not a sprint

"When I talk to folks that unfortunately know disasters really well they describe the Camp Fire on kind of the same devastating level as September 11th and Katrina just in terms of impact on a community and a region," he said.

The group doesn't have money to hire more workers – and they already have a waitlist.

"We're very aware that they're desiring to begin recovery and get out of relief and we want to help them in that unfortunately right now we have a backload and we're trying as fast as we can to get to every single case," Plotkin said.

The longterm recovery group resource center aims to be up and running by October 1.

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