The homes where Lee and Doreen Gregory grew up in Paradise, California, no longer stand after the Camp fire. Her parents, who were among tens of thousands of families displaced by California’s deadliest wildfire, will not be returning.
Instead, they’re building a new life in the Rogue Valley with what they managed to rescue from the flames. Lee Gregory, lead pastor at Medford Neighborhood Church, said his family got out with more than just the clothes on their back.
“That fire came like a tsunami,” he said.
It’s been a month since the day when something happened to Lee Gregory that shaped his idea to help families just like his — people fleeing their town with a minute’s notice, who were left with little to nothing when they stopped running. Where could they turn to find a home, he wondered?
“This idea of caring,” the pastor said, “it needs to grow.”
The students filling the seats of Lee Gregory’s bus on Nov. 8 inspired him to throw himself and the Medford Neighborhood Church into the effort to provide for families displaced by the Camp and Ventura fires.
They call it the “I CARE” campaign — an acronym for “Compassion and Respect for Everyone.”
Throughout that Thursday, Lee was distracted by thoughts of the fire, he said. By that time, he and his wife had lost contact with their family members during the confusion. She had headed down to California with a friend, ready to help victims.
But Lee Gregory, a 12-year veteran school bus driver who said he has driven every route for every school district in the Valley, couldn’t be relieved from his duty that day. While he was taking students home in the afternoon, he started telling some of them about the devastation unfolding south of them.
More students spoke up from the back of the bus.
“We don’t give a ‘blank,’ get the ‘blank’ bus moving,” Lee Gregory tried to politely echo the students as he remembered.
Before he could respond, other students beat him to it.
“Well, I care,” a student said, defending Gregory.
“And another student stood up and said ‘I care.’ ... I didn’t say anything to the students in the back,” he said.
But the seed was planted. As Rogue Valley residents stirred in support of their counterparts down south, Lee Gregory’s thoughts turned to the long-term needs.
Paradise was destroyed — nearly all of the approximately 27,000-person town had burned. A month later, nearly all of the town remains closed to entry.
With tens of thousands still waiting for their first chance to return to the damage, Medford Neighborhood Church opened doors and called for donations — they would help the displaced survivors who sought refuge in the nearby area.
“We need the news to proclaim: if you are displaced and have moved to this area ... this area can care for you,” Lee Gregory said.
In the secondary building on the church’s property, donations given by over 400 people from across Southern Oregon have helped a dozen families who have landed in the Rogue Valley, Lee Gregory said. But he’s anticipating more families will arrive in coming months, which is why the campaign is growing.
Radio stations, businesses and other churches have all joined in to try to spread the word that the Neighborhood Church has resources to offer.
Lee is also speaking with public officials about the potential impacts on the housing or labor market if people arrive, including city and county leaders.
“We are a community that welcomes everyone,” said Rick Dyer, a Jackson County Commissioner. “And especially if someone is in a situation where they are needing another place to land, we want to encourage that to be the Rogue Valley.”
Lee Gregory said any displaced family (their stories are vetted, he said) seeking help can contact the Medford Neighborhood Church for help at 541-773-7974. If the donations exceed the local need, he said, the church will use its connections with Chico Neighborhood Church and Paradise Alliance Church to reach displaced families.
“That’s exactly what the church is supposed to do,” he said.