Through preparedness messaging, ODHS expands help to neighboring Jackson and Josephine County
Silvia Ceron knows what the message, “This is a mandatory evacuation order,” means. In 2020 she got such a message at her home in Medford, Oregon. The Almeda wildfire was careening towards her neighborhood. She left as quickly as possible. Luckily, her home was not burned. But she knows more about what people go through when this happens to them – the fear, the confusion, not knowing.
At that time Ceron worked for the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) Aging and People with Disabilities program supervising the adult foster home and transition coordination programs in Jackson and Josephine counties. One of those care facilities that housed senior residents burned to the ground.
People in the facility had no idea fire was coming their way. The owner of the assisted living facility opened the door and could see flames coming. The place was evacuated and 85 seniors were displaced,” she said.
Ceron was part of a team that worked to support and find housing for those displaced.
This experience led her to work for the ODHS Office of Resilience and Emergency Management (OREM). She is part of a team that works with local communities and partners to help people in Oregon prepare for and during emergencies. When an emergency happens, OREM’s role is to help people find food, shelter and meet other basic needs. They’re motto is: “Every day, we work to reduce the impact of disasters on people.”
The local team includes Kilana Fitzgerald, Amanda Johnson, Ariana Limon and Griselda Rodriguez. At first, they mainly worked in Jackson County with wildfire survivors. They built relationships to better share information about being prepared in an emergency. Out of five staff, three are bilingual in Spanish. Rodriquez also has experienced having to evacuate her home due to the Almeda wildfire. Having lived experience has helped establish trust in their communities.
Recently, the team has expanded their preparedness work into Josephine County, especially working with the Spanish-speaking community. They started by building relationships with people and with local organizations such as UNETE, a farmworker advocacy organization, Coalicion Fortaleza, a culturally-empowered women of color-led community based organization and Self-Sufficiency Programs in Cave Junction. Without this team, developing relationships in the Spanish-speaking community may not have possible for OREM.
“No one really knows about OREM. Our goal is to change that. We want to build relationships and we can work together, especially the Latinx community – it can be hard for them to trust. They worry we will bring in immigration,” Limon said.
“We are bilingual, bicultural and come from a background of lived experience,” Ceron said.
“We are all in the same boat so how can we minimize the impacts of a disaster on our community? How can we be better prepared? We ask people, ‘What are you doing to prepare?’” Limon said.
Their outreach starts by helping people be prepared in their own homes to have enough water, food and needed medications for at least two weeks. Then, people can branch out to how to help their neighborhood and their community.
They spread the preparedness word through relationships, by attending community meetings and by working with partners such as the Red Cross, UNETE, ACCESS, Jackson County Long-Term Recovery Group and other community organizations. “We’re helping our community and for me, as an individual, it feels good to be focusing on the people we live around so everyone feels close-knitted as a community. We’re just in the beginning of building these relationships. I’m optimistic about the work we can do together in the future,” Limon said.