Wildfire spreads quickly, leaving destruction in its path. The people of Paradise, Calif., learned this all too well. They also learned that kindness and generosity − from strangers and rivals − spread just as quickly, blazing a trail of determination and hope.
Residents of Paradise had to outrun the Camp Fire as it closed in last November. Among those fleeing were members of the Paradise Adventist Academy volleyball team, which had just advanced to the state semifinals and were scheduled to face Forest Lake Christian. But as players scattered to the homes of friends and relatives hours away, coach Jason Eyer realized he had no team.
“At first, it was just trying to figure out where everybody was and if everyone was safe. I didn’t even think about the game,” Jason said. Once everyone was located, the team needed to decide whether to play or forfeit. After contacting each of the girls, “it was overwhelming that we wanted to play,” he said. “The team had been together for so long and been through so much, they felt like playing was something they had to do.”
But most of the team had left behind uniforms and equipment; many had been destroyed. The coach then called LaRon Gordon, athletic director at Forest Lake Christian, about 90 miles away in Auburn. He let him know that despite the fire, the team intended to play − even if they were dressed in Sharpie-numbered T-shirts.
Though LaRon said Auburn wasn’t in danger, “we knew that this could just as easily have been us that had been forced to leave our homes.” Using empathy as his compass, he convinced the California Interscholastic Federation to waive admission fees and to give any ticket donations to Paradise. He then reached out to his coaching staff and athletic contacts, found a company that could print new uniforms and drove the 50 miles to Sacramento to pick them up.
He and volleyball coach Travis Smith also placed three small bins outside the school entrance with a handwritten sign that said “DONATIONS.” School administrators and athletic department staff took to social media to spread the word.
“We thought that if there were a couple bags, that would be great,” LaRon said. “A couple hours later, the parking lot was full of donation bags. We could have opened a thrift store.”
So they set up a room full of shirts, shoes, pillows, blankets, toiletries and other essentials for the team and its fans. They also collected $16,000 in gift cards and cash, divided equally and placed in envelopes to present to each player. All in a span of 48 hours.
But perhaps the most poignant gesture was laying out a set of new Paradise uniforms and equipment on the bleachers. “They looked at the roster and made sure every girl had the correct number,” Jason said. “The detail was incredible. They had everything we needed.”
The gym was packed, spilling into the hallway. “We probably violated the fire code,” LaRon said. Though Forest Lake won, the crowd saved its biggest cheers for Paradise − its resolve and grit in taking its first steps on the road back to normalcy. And, when Forest Lake appeared in the final, its fan base swelled with Paradise supporters and players, wearing the jerseys that Forest Lake had given them.
“In the midst of all that was going on, they were thinking about us,” LaRon said.
As the rebuilding continues, the teams’ bond has strengthened. LaRon and Jason stay in contact as do the players.
“People’s hearts go out to kids in need, but there’s also something about sports that brings people together. Religion, socioeconomic background just don’t matter,” LaRon said. “It can be a rallying point for good.”