Fires In the Midst of the Pandemic: A Network of Support

When the CalWood and Left Hand Canyon fires broke out in Boulder County’s mountain communities this fall, Chelce and her family of seven were living at a disbursed campsite in Nederland. After months of surviving in the wilderness, the woods had become their second home. One night in October, they received a phone call alerting them of a quickly spreading fire – and learned they would have to evacuate immediately.

Chelce’s family came to Colorado in August after her sister-in-law died suddenly from a heart attack. The glue that held their families together, the loss of their family member devastated Chelce and her brother’s families alike. Together with her husband and brother, they decided the only way to move forward was to start over. For months they prepared for the move from Oklahoma to Colorado, finally one day squeezing three adults and four children into a car packed with all of their belongings and set out to build a better life.

Not long after they got to Colorado their car broke down, causing them to spend what little they had on a rental. To save money, Chelce searched for free camping sites where her family would learn to survive on their own. “Moving to Colorado was like moving to a new planet,” Chelce remarked. “I had never seen snowcapped mountains before… actually, I don’t think I ever even saw a mountain before.” Yet before long, Chelce had the outdoor survival skills that would rival any nature guide. The experience taught her and her children, aged 5 and 11, that they could overcome anything that life throws at them.

It was well past dark when Chelce received the evacuation call from Claudia, the Homeless Outreach Coordinator of the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church. Weeks earlier Chelce had formed a connection with Claudia, who helped her family access food and other necessities when they ran out of supplies and introduced her to other community resources, including EFAA. When Claudia arrived at their campsite to help them evacuate, they left everything but the clothes on their backs and headed for a hotel in Black Hawk. For the first time in months, they would have a roof over their heads.

During the fires EFAA’s Mountain Resource Liaison, Kristi, worked with other community partners to assist those who had been evacuated or lost their homes. Kristi quickly learned of Chelce’s family and began coordinating closely with Nederland Community Presbyterian Church, the Nederland Food Pantry, and Boulder County Human Services to help get Chelce’s family housed. “That’s when the magic really started,” said Chelce.

This network of human service groups provided Chelce’s family with just over two weeks of hotel vouchers as they waited for a short-term housing unit with EFAA. The day they moved into their two-bedroom apartment, Chelce cried tears of relief.  “Having a kitchen, a bathtub, a shower… You don’t know how good you have it until it’s gone,” she said. “Just having a faucet with running water was life changing. It made me a more humble person.”

Once they were settled in EFAA’s housing, Chelce began working closely with an EFAA case manager to secure longer-term affordable housing. She applied for the Housing Stabilization Program, a contract program through Boulder County that provides extended rental assistance and ongoing case management through EFAA. “We were so grateful to have the apartment at EFAA, but we knew we knew that that place was needed for someone else,” said Chelce.

Chelce was approved for the program and shortly thereafter found a five-bedroom house that could accommodate her large family. “My kids are the happiest they have been in a long time,” she said. A little over a week after moving into her new home, she was offered a job with a bank. She hopes to continue moving forward with her life, maybe one day going back to school to continue her education. After everything she has been through, she knows there is nothing she can’t accomplish once she puts her mind to it. “I want everyone to know that when you put in the effort, anything is possible,” said Chelce. “I didn’t always believe that, but now I know it’s true. My family’s story is the perfect example of that.”

Chelce extends a special thank you to Becky and Dererk of Ned’s Restaurant and Claudia and Bridgette of Nederland Community Presbyterian Church for their support of her family.