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THE STATE | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Church Helps Those Used to Assisting Others

The parish in an affluent San Diego neighborhood is inundated with items donated for people who have lost their homes.

October 31, 2003|Ann M. Simmons and James Ricci | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — On Thursday, four days after the wildfire came, the wind blew ash instead of the smell of eucalyptus through the city's prosperous Scripps Ranch neighborhood. Many once vigorously green lawns were burned a bare black. A particular unease hung as noticeably in the air as the rough-textured blanket of ash and fog that had displaced blue sky.

As in other places in Southern California, afflicted homeowners picked desolately or numbly or gamely through the ruins of their homes. Some of the 385 houses consumed by flames in Scripps Ranch ran to $1 million or more in value.

The newly homeless here tended to be people more likely to contribute to the needy than to be on the receiving end. Now, however, they were in immediate need -- momentarily stripped bare before their neighbors, some of whose houses and everyday lives had escaped being ravaged.

That seemed evident at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church on Blue Cypress Drive, where a relief center had been established in the parish social hall.

The large room had been set up with large, collapsible tables piled high with canned food, toilet tissue, pots, pans, children's shoes, sports equipment, toys, school supplies, garden tools and Halloween costumes. Racks of men's, women's and children's clothing -- most of it second-hand, some of it still dangling sales tags -- and tables of folded shirts spilled from the hall onto a covered patio outside.

A sign at the entrance begged, "No More Clothes, Please. We Have Plenty. Thanks!"

At one point Thursday afternoon, contributors laden with goods seemed greatly to outnumber those who had come to receive the largess.

Relief volunteers said that, shortly after the center opened Tuesday, local victims of the fire had been sending others to collect needed items because they were too uneasy to go themselves. Or they were not availing themselves of the center's offerings at all.

"In the beginning, some families were reluctant and embarrassed," volunteer Liz Burchill said. "We want to get the word out: 'Please, don't be embarrassed; we want to help.' This is a community where they are used to giving, used to serving."

Volunteers said the reluctance of some fire victims was beginning to ease. Between 30 and 40 families visited the center Thursday in search of help, volunteers said, although some were from other fire-damaged communities, such as Julian and Ramona. (The center is open to all victims, regardless of where they live.)

One of those who had accepted help, Gabriela Myers of Handrich Drive, received food and clothing from the relief center, as well as a reference to a family willing to give her shelter. Myers, a 63-year-old investment banker living on disability pay, was stricken with sadness as she stood amid the wreckage of the home she had rented and in which she had lost all her possessions.

"I only have what I have on. What can I do?" she said tearfully. "... Now I don't even have my resume." She begged an interviewer to help her find a job "so that I can have the dignity to stand on my own feet."

Lawyer Ken Klein of Handrich Court surveyed the ruin of his four-bedroom, half-million-dollar house as he waited for an insurance company adjuster. His house had been one of five on a cul-de-sac, and one of only two to be destroyed. He said his house had started to burn, and firefighters had been forced to bulldoze it to save nearby homes.

Klein was adamant that he would rebuild on the lot. "It's a close-knit, family community," he said. "All of our neighbors keep coming by and offering us things, and many don't even have homes themselves."

California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi visited the neighborhood late Thursday morning, and added to residents' sense of an upended world.

Speaking at the recreation center at Scripps Ranch Community Park, Garamendi cautioned those whose homes had been lost or damaged that they should be wary of unlicensed contractors who might show up in the neighborhood. "As the ashes begin to cool down, out of those ashes come thieves, crooks and charlatans who are trying to rip off the victims once again," he said.

Not far from the park, at her leveled home on Grainwood Way, Jane Rabun pondered a blue plastic trash can she had bought recently. It had melted into the ground. Rabun, a 42-year-old emergency-room nurse, said she had managed to save family photos when she, her husband and two daughters -- ages 4 and 9 -- hurriedly fled the home Sunday morning. Her husband had insisted on saving some of her formal gowns too, she said, although "I don't know why he thought I would need them."

Rabun said her priority was getting her children back into school as soon as possible.

In the office of the neighborhood school, Chauncy I. Jerabek Elementary, Principal Thomas P. Liberto sat in shorts and an aloha shirt, fielding calls from parents and staff members.

The school and the residential streets nearest it formed an island of unscathed greenery and unsullied structures in the devastation only a few blocks away. Liberto estimated that 120 of the school's 950 children and at least seven staff members were suddenly homeless.

Teachers will return today, and with them a team of counselors and psychologists. "I want to make sure the staff is OK," he said. "If not, we're not going to be OK for the kids."

Liberto intended for the school to reopen Monday. He was acutely aware, he said, of the need to buoy the homeless children and parents with the thought that, although their homes might be gone, the school -- "a constant in this neighborhood; it's been here 27 years" -- remained, its soothing, everyday mission unaffected.

"The message I'm giving parents is one of safety -- and make sure the kids realize that they are safe, that the damage has already been done.

"We can't show any kind of fear or trauma ourselves. That will not be good for the kids."

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