Willamette community unites to support people impacted by natural disasters

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Leandro Gonzales
    Leandro Gonzales ’03 helped organize the delivery of dozens of tents to Mexico and Puerto Rico residents recently struck by natural disasters.
  • wildfire relief charity basketball game poster; graphic info is in the caption
    Willamette’s basketball teams will play a charity doubleheader at Cone Field House at 6 p.m. Nov. 7 against Western Oregon University and Concordia University for wildfire relief.

Families of some students, faculty grapple with aftermath.

The moment Isabella Medina ’21 wakes up on Oct. 9, she checks her cellphone for the time. Her confusion at seeing the screen filled with dozens of texts is soon replaced by alarm.

The texts from family members and friends warn that a massive wildfire has destroyed several buildings near Medina’s hometown of Windsor in northern California. To escape the fast-moving fire, Medina’s mother and brother fled at 2 a.m. to a relative’s home north of town. They weren’t able to reach her father, who lives in a different house.

“I felt like I was in a dream, because everything I was reading was so surreal and terrifying,” says Medina. “I didn’t even know if my house was still there.”

A series of natural disasters since late August — the California wildfires, earthquakes in Mexico and hurricanes that wreaked havoc in the Caribbean Islands, Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico — has left millions of people reeling in the aftermath, including the families of Willamette community members.

The university reached out to 51 students potentially affected by the natural disasters, offering them counseling through Bishop Wellness Center and the chaplains’ office, rescheduled dates for assignments and financial assistance for one student’s flight home.

Luck and survival

Medina’s family was lucky.

They stayed with relatives and finally reunited with her father. Her mother and brother returned home after a week and found their house untouched — even though it was located less than a mile from the fires that killed dozens of people, torched thousands of buildings and caused an estimated $3 billion in insurance losses. All of her relatives’ homes were unharmed, too.

Medina will discover how her hometown has changed when she visits during Thanksgiving. She says, “I can’t imagine what I’m actually going to see.”

Like Medina, Assistant Professor of Biology Rosa Leon-Zayas wanted to make sure her immediate and extended family members were safe after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico. They were also lucky — their home didn’t suffer major damages — but like others on the island, they don’t have power, gas and food is scarce and they have significant concerns about clean drinking water. A fundraiser for their necessities has been set up through YouCaring.com.

In a recent interview for the KMUZ radio show “Worldviews Wednesday,” Leon-Zayas explained that people who survive a natural disaster redefine what it means to “be OK.”

“For us, it means we go home and have dinner and go about our lives,” she says. “They have to think about how they’re going to buy food or generate enough power to keep their medicine cold. That’s what OK means — they’re alive, they’re making do.”

The instinct to help

The disasters have prompted the Willamette community to help. Students raised money for California families affected by the fires by selling handmade headbands and cozies at Goudy Commons.

Tomorrow, Bearcat basketball teams will play a charity doubleheader at Cone Field House against Western Oregon University and Concordia University for the same cause.

Leandro Gonzales ’03, who works in San Francisco, says he volunteered to fundraise and send supplies to earthquake and hurricane victims because he “couldn’t just sit back.”

As several displaced Santa Rosa residents only spoke Spanish, Gonzales drove north and spent a few days translating for two families who had been evacuated to a shelter. They were shaken but OK, he says.

At home, he tapped his local connections to arrange transportation of 80 tents — half to Mexico, half to Puerto Rico. He also worked with community leaders and an organization to raise $21,000 for victims in Oaxaca through raffle tickets, tamale sales and an art event he coordinated. Various communities and people rallied behind the cause, including two drag queen icons who helped raise about a third of the funds.

“It’s unfortunate that these natural disasters happened,” Gonzales says, “but you could really see people come together, no matter the color of their skin.”

In San Francisco, his job is to oversee the welfare of low-income tenants for a housing program, so he frequently thinks about people’s basic needs. But his humanitarian instincts were first honed at Willamette, where he frequently volunteered.

As a football player, he continued a team tradition by tutoring high school students in reading and math.

“I always had help at Willamette — my teachers were always making sure I was taking my exams and was prepared, and that sort of influenced me to do the same,” he says. “Now I want to set that example for others to follow.”

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