The Carr Fire Volunteer Housing Project
● By Kimberly Boney
The House the Community Built
Story by Kimberly Bonéy
Photos by Katie Luther
“WHEN WE FIRTS HEARD about the idea, it seemed too good to be true. I kept thinking: ‘It could be sticky.’ I wondered if it was going to get weird. I felt there would be a catch – but there wasn’t one. It was a gaping wound in our family that was turned into something beautiful,” says Katie Luther.
The “gaping wound” Luther speaks of was a small house on Willis Street in Downtown Redding, a property that had been in her family for more than three decades. It sat vacant and in disrepair for two and a half years, after the woman who had begun a transformation into a drug-free life suddenly fell back into hard times and ended up evicted from the property. The family simply didn’t have the money to do anything with it.
The house was initially purchased by Luther’s father, Jim, as an investment property. “He wanted the houses to be a fresh start for people that needed it – he was always interested in helping people to make a transformation. My dad used to volunteer at The Good News Rescue Mission. He was very active in the service community,” says Luther.
Luther received a call from Wendy and Sam Van Kirk, in the midst of the Carr Fire, with an idea that would change the fate of the house – and build friendships and a sense of community right along with it. Wendy, a registered nurse, and Sam, a physician, not only had connections to the medical community, but had a passion for the neighborhood itself. Their home sat just across the way from the little house on Willis Street. They had seen the house go through changes but saw potential for it to become something more.
As the Carr Fire ravaged the west side of Redding, the Van Kirks, feeling a deep sense of sadness and what they described as “survivor’s guilt,” began wandering their lonely downtown neighborhood trying to figure out how they could help.
“We wondered where all of those people were going to go. There were 1,400 people displaced and only 700 available homes in the Redding area. We noticed several vacant homes and thought it would be perfect if they could somehow be available to those displaced in our community. I shared the idea on Facebook and found that there were lots of people who wanted to help. We knew it would be a tremendous benefit not only to the homeowner, but to the neighborhood, the community, and, especially, to those who had lost their homes to the fire,” says Wendy.
“We knew we couldn’t just have this house sit empty. It didn’t feel right,” says Luther. So, she pushed past her trepidation with the goal of allowing the home to become a fresh start for a Carr Fire family. The result became the ultimate gathering of hands and hearts. A phenomenal cross-section of people – from neighbors, to the church community, to the medical community, to people with and without experience building homes, to those who had bounced back from life challenges, to local business owners and laypeople, and everyone in between – joined forces on what became known as The Carr Fire Volunteer Housing Project.
Donations of time were one thing, but the project saw donations of materials pour in from local businesses, community members and volunteers alike. According to Luther, approximately two-thirds of what went into the home was donated, and the other one-third was purchased.
Shawn Parker of Living Water Landscaping landscaped the front yard, while Lassen Landscape donated the materials. Tess Woodford, who pioneered Carr Fire Furnishings with her husband Bil Woodford, found siding that was era-specific to maintain the integrity of the home, built in the 1920s. Additionally, Woodford routed specific items, like light fixtures, to contribute to the refurbishment of the home. Those who came to volunteer at the little house on Willis Street used their own connections to procure additional items, including flooring, paint and countertops. Nail by nail, tile by tile, piece by piece, they saw to it that each nook and cranny was covered.
“We had heart surgeons doing drywall and mortgage brokers spackling walls. One gentleman, who had once gotten high in that house and had since turned his life around, volunteered on the project to help this house become a blessing for someone else. There were two gentlemen – Kevin Baird, a registered nurse and the Stroke Program Coordinator at Mercy Medical Center, and Jim Lamb, a retired contractor – who came almost every day to help. I learned so much from them,” says Luther.
“The friendships that have come from this project are as much of a blessing as the house itself,” Luther says. “To be the recipient of such a large outpouring of love from the community feels like a gift from heaven. For the house to have been through such changes and to see it come to such good for someone else could only be described as redemption. It felt like God saw me.”
“It felt good to be able to do something to help. Our lives were blessed by the amazing and generous volunteers – some of whom had lost their own homes. Our neighborhood was blessed by this home, itself – and the people in it,” says Wendy Van Kirk.
In 2016, the same year Luther lost her father to cancer, she had a vision that the house would experience yet another transformation. Her dad, who was given three days to live more than 20 years ago, had beaten the odds, surviving autoimmune disease, kidney failure and cancer. “Nothing could take him down,” says Luther. His purpose, it seemed, was helping to transform the lives of others.
In September 2018, the transformation of that little house on Willis Street became a fresh start for a couple who had lost everything in the Carr Fire.
Today, Jim Luther’s legacy lives on through his daughter: “I used to worry that my dad was being taken advantage of,” Katie says. “When you are removed from it and all you see is the outcome, you wonder why someone would take the risk. But once I became the one making decisions, I began to wonder what I could do to help. My dad loved on people so well. I understand why my dad did what he did, now. I have the same heart for taking care of others.” •