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Rapid response commended – Silverton Lions Club presented with awards for Santiam Canyon fire service

By Melissa Wagoner

Long before the flames of the Labor Day 2020 wildfires were extinguished, Ward Frederick knew he had to do something to help those who had lost everything to the flames.

Lions Club District Governor, Lynn Coon, standing with Heidi Ostrom, Pastor Michael Stair, Tomina Wolff, Ward Frederick, Jon Debo and Steve Potter.

“Besides being a Realtor and doing business up there, I have a restaurant background and am in the wholesale food business,” Frederick – a principal broker with John L Scott Realty and the owner of a Mission Foods Distributorship – said. His background provided the impetus for the seven-day-a-week, three-meal-a-day field kitchen he eventually set up deep in the Santiam Canyon.

“Most of the victims were from further up the canyon but had to come down to get whatever relief was available,” Frederick recalled. “I thought if we could get something operational closer to them, where the need was… maybe it could be a one-stop-shop of relief effort up there, right where it was needed.”

But the effort would require supplies, equipment and, more than anything else, volunteers. And so, for these Frederick turned first to the Silverton Lions Club – of which he is a member – in the hopes of borrowing the equipment the club stores for its annual Harvest Breakfast as well as the manpower of the organization’s 28 members.

“I said, what do you guys think about – if I can put together a tent and supplies and get materials donated – what do you think about bringing all of our equipment up there… and see if we can get the Elks Lodge’s Oktoberfest booth as well.”

Because not only is Frederick a Lion, he’s also an Elk. That came in handy in coming days.

“I figured between the two groups we had enough volunteers and money,” he said. “So, I posed it to the Lions first and they said ‘yes’ and then to the Elks and they said, ‘We’re in.’”

The two groups needed a site on which to set up shop, the problem was the roads were still closed, evacuation orders still in place and a significant portion of Oregon still on fire. Frederick couldn’t get anyone to take his calls. Roads finally re-opened on Sept. 18, when the back roads finally reopened.

“So, we got up there and much to my delight and surprise we found that the Gates Community Church of Christ had not been burned down,” Frederick said. 

“Ward said, we’re looking for the person to say, ‘yes,’” Pastor Michael Stair – a member of the Gates community for the last 30 years – said of that first, surprising conversation, during which Frederick laid out his plans.

Stair’s answer was a resounding, “yes.”

“That was on Friday and we were operational on Sunday,” Frederick said. Volunteers worked speedily to set up both the booth and a large tent. “We were up there even before the Red Cross. The trees around the church building were still smoldering… We were quick.”

Quick and incredibly efficient, they started off by serving over 200 meals on that first day, long before word of the kitchen even had a chance to get out.

“It was pretty amazing, the number of people from the Lions Club and the Elks… it was just incredible,” Frank Bartruff, Exalted Leader of the Silverton Elks Lodge, said. He personally volunteered more than 12 hours a day almost every day for the duration of the relief effort. 

“They (the volunteers) came out of the woodwork and you were like – where are these people coming from?” he recalled.

It turns out they came from everywhere, as far away as Kansas and as close as the canyon itself and numbered more than 1,035 at final tally. They put in over 12,400 hours during a two-month period  and served more than 25,000 meals all thanks to the generous donations of money and supplies.

“Fortunately, there were lots of people that didn’t know how to help or where to help and we gave them an opportunity,” Frederick said. 

One of those eager volunteers was Heidi Ostrom, a member of the Lions Club for the past 15 years. Evacuated from her home because of the fire, Ostrom found herself in a hotel room spending fruitless hours scrolling the internet, sick with worry. Then she heard about the field kitchen and jumped at the chance to volunteer.

“Being able to go up to Gates and help the people was a healing thing,” she said. “I honestly think I got more out of it than I gave.”

A principal volunteer from the beginning, Ostrom recalls witnessing the first few survivors returning to the site of what had once been their home.

The progress reports from canyon residents were often difficult to hear, like the woman Bartruff recalls flashing him a set of keys before saying, “I still have my keys. I just don’t have a house.”

For eight weeks evacuees visited the kitchen alongside firefighters, first responders, aid volunteers and eventually utility workers as the difficult recovery work began.

“We were serving 500 to 600 meals every day,” Frederick said of the kitchen’s initial, break-neck pace.

But in November, as the weather began to worsen and recovery work started to slow, those numbers declined, prompting organizers to schedule one last celebratory meal, an early Thanksgiving dinner to be held on Nov. 21 in gratitude to volunteers, aid workers and the Santiam community itself.

“We served over 500 people on the final hurrah,” Frederick recalled. “A lot of that was the community coming to say thank you.”

But it was the volunteers themselves that felt they should give thanks.

“It was a wonderful thing for everybody to do this but I think we got just as much out of it as everyone else,” Bartruff said, confirming that, though it’s been almost a year since the kitchen closed, the memory of those eight weeks is still vivid in the hearts and minds of everyone involved. 

This year, on Nov. 4, Lions from across the state met to honor those who started it all, beginning with the Silverton Lions Club – who received both the Excellence Award, the organization’s fourth highest honor, and the Service from the Heart Pin – as well as Frederick himself, who was presented a Certificate of Appreciation by Lynn Coon, the District Governor.

“It’s kind of a validation of a lot of work,” Frederick said.

But Pastor Stair had another take.

“It was not just the food but the example to our community of kindness and service,” he said in a speech he gave during the ceremony. “Saying thank you does not cover our gratitude.”

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