California collaboration will build tiny homes for families displaced by fires
Four families in California who lost much to wildfires will soon be moving into new homes, thanks to a collaborative effort by the churches of the United Church of Christ Northern California Nevada Conference.
First Congregational Church of Oroville came up with the idea. The Conference helped support it. Together, with the financial gifts of other generous members and congregations, they’ve donated more than $31,000 for the construction of tiny houses.
Pastor Andrew McHenry said his congregation, meeting virtually since March of 2020, decided to help fire victims last summer after a grass fire took out three homes near the church.
“We felt the need to collaborate to help them,” he said. “The Conference provided us with gift cards we could give to the families for basics like groceries and clothes. That got us started. But we wanted to go beyond that – and provide for an actual home.”
Raising funds for tiny homes
McHenry, a member of the Conference Disaster Relief Team, is a wildfire survivor. He and his wife Hillary escaped the November 2018 Camp Fire with “our two cats and the clothes on our backs,” he said. “I just remember being overwhelmed by the positive support that came in from so many directions. It was clear that we weren’t alone in this.”
So his church, looking for alternative ministries during the pandemic, took action to assist and empower other families displaced by fire.
Jeannie Maes, a longtime member of First Congregational Church, suggested a fundraiser for tiny homes after she met Alyssa Nolan-Cain, president and founder of the Tiny Pine Foundation.
“A friend of mine took me over to see Alyssa’s build site. I was extremely impressed,” Maes said. “About three months after the Camp Fire, she started building tiny homes.”
Homes on wheels
The Tiny Pine Foundation, based in Oroville, started building small houses on wheels for fire survivors in December 2018, using donations and volunteers. It can turn out an $18,000 home with a $7,000 donation, Maes said, by leveraging other resources.
Nolan-Cain said Tiny Pine has given away 24 homes, with eight or nine under construction. Several more are funded for survivors of fires in California and Oregon.
When First Congregational started collecting money last year to sponsor a tiny home for a family of three in nearby Berry Creek, the Conference Disaster Relief team contributed $2,500 to get the drive started. Gifts from FCC church members and other interested supporters raised enough to get an initial donation to Nolan-Cain to start construction. On March 23, First Congregational met its $7,000 goal.
The Northern California Nevada Conference Disaster Relief team followed that gift with a grant of $24,000 to Tiny Pine.
‘I cried when I opened it’
“I cried when I opened it because I didn’t expect them to send that kind of money,” Nolan-Cain said. “That will supply housing for multiple people and that really makes a difference when there is no housing available.”
“We had been looking for other similar organizations but did not find others that were currently working on these types of housing projects,” said the Rev. Diane Weible, Conference minister. “Because of the good work of the Tiny Pine Foundation and because they had opportunities for other grant money that would allow our donated funds to go further, we decided to donate enough to build three more homes.”
Those homes will be on wheels, designed for families that have yet to be identified. Each home is unique, created for its owners. “If we design it to their needs, it will be a bigger blessing,” Nolan-Cain said. Families don’t see their homes until their “reveal day,” and Tiny Pine invites donors to come and participate. “There usually isn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Tiny Pine is also working on another ambitious project, the Tiny Pine Village in Concow. The rural Northern California site was a mobile home park before it was destroyed by the Camp Fire. The multi-acre parcel was given to the Foundation, McHenry said, which is working with Engineers without Borders. Nolan-Cain indicated the plans call for 35 free-standing homes.
“This is a really good way to help people get back on their feet,” McHenry said. “I know what it’s like to get a helping hand just when you need it. It makes a world of difference.”
Showering the family
First Congregational members have also reached out to the family who will be occupying the home the church helped finance.
“I made an executive decision, and decided to have a shower for the family — a bathroom and baby shower,” said Maes, who chairs the church missions committee. “We delivered the gifts to the family a few weeks ago.”
She said the young couple and their 15-month-old baby have moved three times since losing everything in 2018. They have safe housing in an RV on the Berry Creek property until their home is complete. “They seem like a very pleasant and hard-working family.”
“Rev. McHenry and the Oroville Congregation reached beyond the walls of the building and into the community,” said the Rev. Davena Jones, associate Conference minister and coordinator of the NCNC Disaster Relief team. “Oh, what a blessing it is to know that four families will have shelter, a home of their own. Thanks be to God.”
McHenry said he and his congregation, a “small group in a big building,” are looking to their next mission in the community. He and a few members are already immersed in a ministry known as “Citrus Savers.”
“It began with a couple church families offering citrus fruits to other members. As a pastor during the pandemic I was curtailed from my normal pastoral activities, but I could deliver food to people,” he said. “There was such an abundance from Jane’s tree that I had to reach out into the community to give them all away. I put out a word on social media and had responses from all across the area. So I spent a few days driving around and giving out bags of fruit to whoever wanted them.”
Now he and other volunteers are harvesting fruit from donors’ trees and taking the citrus to the Salvation Army food pantry.
First Congregational Church of Oroville, the oldest church in Butte County, just resumed gathered worship on Palm Sunday. Members practice social distancing, masks are required and other safety precautions follow public health guidelines.
“We are coming out of the pandemic chapter, and looking forward to our next one,” McHenry said. “We’re going to look to see what the Lord does in this one and adapt to the opportunity that God is putting before us.”
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