From the inside

aka: My three days in an evacuation shelter
by Frances Spencer- Artist, Playwright

The Thomas Fire was burning on the hill above Ventura City Hall. My apartment building, two miles downwind, was in the path of the flames. Despite being warned to evacuate, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. My personal wealth was in my paintings and manuscripts lying in wait for the flames. So I stayed on, as if somehow by being there, I could will away the danger. When the smoke-filled air became too difficult to breathe, I knew I had no choice. Everyone had left, nothing was open throughout the City. It was a ghost town. I had no place to go except the evacuation shelter.

That’s how, in the twilight of my life, I spent two days and nights in a shelter, sharing space with those made homeless by the great California fire. What I took away from this experience was the knowledge of what a caring and generous community I live in, and how the urge to help our fellow humans burns brighter within our souls than the fires outside. For two days, the firefighters, police, Red Cross, Salvation Army, and sundry volunteers young and old surrounded, fed and protected me.

The generosity of the business community was awesome. Several times a day, food was brought in from restaurants. Everyone was treated like royalty, with courtesy and compassion. No criticism. Just kindness. Toys, coloring books, games were laid out on tables, and volunteers entertained the children. There were mounds of donated clothes, shoes, blankets, toothbrushes, odds and ends to fill all possible needs. To pass the day, I sketched scenes in the shelter.

But nighttime was surreal. In a barn bigger than a football field, endless rows of narrow cots were packed together; a sea of bodies huddled under coats and blankets in an uneasy silence punctuated by coughing, a baby crying, a woman sobbing over an unknown sorrow, perhaps the loss of her home in the fire.

On the morning of day three, the smoke had gotten so bad within the shelter, that those who could were told to leave. So with heart aching for those sufferers who had to stay, I went to a hotel far, far away and languished there for three more days. I was finally able to return home on the first day of Chanukah. I was sure it was a sign that all would be well. The people of the Bible believed in signs and so do I. It’s in my blood. Although smoky debris was still blowing about, it felt good to be home and grateful I had a home to return to. Despite modern technology, for a few days in the shelter, survival depended on the concern and compassion of strangers who had traveled miles to help. I was proud of my community that had pulled together with such generosity of spirit. It was because of this, I became convinced that there is more than enough goodness in humanity to save the world.

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