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Employees find Asante RV Park a welcome refuge after wildfires

They lost most of their beloved possessions, but at last find a place to call home while they rebuild their lives.

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Shawn Espejo and his partner, Terra Durbin, describe the day of the Almeda fire.
Little survives of Shawn and Terra's Talent apartment after the Almeda fire.
Shawn lost several of these beautiful river tables he made at his Talent apartment.
Amanda Skaff's father captures this retardant plane fighting the Almeda fire close to their Phoenix home.
Amanda Skaff's family hangs a sign on their door while they ready for evacuation during the Almeda fire on Sept. 8.
The Almeda fire fills the sky with smoke as residents evacuate. Photo courtesy Amanda Skaff
A set of barbells stands amid the ruins of Amanda Skaff's home after the Almeda fire.
A stone angel sits in the yard of Amanda's home before the Almeda fire.
That same stone angel after the Almeda fire.
Asante opens its RV park for employees displaced by summer fires on Dec. 9.
Asante RV Park, Medford, Oregon
Harry and David donates live miniature Christmas trees with ornaments to each family in the park.
A Harry and David worker and Joseph Shaughnessy of the Asante Foundation place bags of ornaments and cards on the Christmas trees.
Joseph Shaughnessy of the Asante Foundation places cards on the trees for the recipients.
Joseph Shaughnessy of the Asante Foundation hands Patty Emery a live miniature Christmas tree donated by Harry and David.
Asante employees donated gifts, cash and other items to their coworkers displaced by the fires through Hands and Hearts, an Asante initiative.
Julie Hale, Asante director of Support Services, unloads two kids' bikes for a family living in the RV park just before Christmas.
Lorry Shlitter, Julie Hale and Kelly Stofflet of Hands and Hearts deliver holiday gifts to residents of the Asante RV Park.
The Asante RV Park will remain available to displaced employees until March 2023.
Shawn and Terra Durbin at the Asante RV Park

The opening of the Asante RV Park last month gave 17 Asante families a place to call home for the first time since devastating wildfires took everything they had on Sept. 8.

“I don’t know how to say thank you to everybody — to the whole community,” says Amanda Skaff, a nurse who works on the fourth floor tower at Asante Rogue Regional and moved into the park after she lost her home in Phoenix. “Words can’t express my thanks and gratitude.

“I feel like I’m able to get settled a little bit. [Staying at the park] lifts a huge burden off what the next step will be. I want to get in the new groove of what my life is going to be.”

The Almeda fire ignited in Ashland and marched north, destroying 2,695 homes and businesses through Talent and Phoenix within hours before it was stopped at Glenwood Road in south Medford.

Asante employees quickly mobilized within hours of the Almeda and Obenchain fires to distribute food and clothing for displaced coworkers, setting up a donation center within Smullin. Many provided coworkers with a place to stay, too.

With the help of Adroit Construction, Asante opened an RV park for displaced employees on a large field it owns near ARRMC. Asante purchased most of the trailers for the park with the intent of selling them back once the park closes in 2023. Employees began moving in Dec. 9. Many of their departments marshaled cash, toys and other gifts through Hands and Hearts to make Christmas at the park a little more special, and Harry & David donated a miniature tree with ornaments to each family.

Shawn Espejo, a physical therapist with Asante Outpatient Rehabilitation Services who also works one day a week at ARRMC, had a full patient caseload the day of the fire. His partner and 13-year-old stepson, Terra and Tyson Durbin, drove through a thick rain of black ash to escape the fire when it reached their apartment in Talent. They tried to get to Shawn in Medford but were diverted to Ashland because of the fire.

“There were points when I couldn’t see six inches in front of myself in the truck,” says Terra, who’s expecting a baby in May. “I had to rely on people’s brake lights to kind of keep moving. It was black smoke. … Ash was falling everywhere. There were people on bicycles and walking trying to get out. Most people ended up picking someone up in their car if they had room. We didn’t have that kind of space. We wanted to. It was intense.”

Shawn continued to treat his patients and kept in contact with his family as best he could by phone. As the fire threatened to consume south Medford, he remained at the hospital in case ARRMC had to be evacuated.

“I knew by nighttime our apartment was no longer standing,” says Shawn, who lost several beautiful river tables of wood and epoxy he had handcrafted there. “So that was a tough pill to swallow. In that moment you’re stripped bare, you’re completely vulnerable.

“The one thing that I will never forget is my boss [and coworkers] on that night. They gave me the biggest, warmest hug, as if I was a family member, not an employee, and they said to me, ‘We will take care of you. Let us know if there’s anything you need. And we are going to be alongside.’ And surprisingly, that was like the warmest blanket I ever felt, in a position so vulnerable.”

When his patients finally did learn of Shawn’s loss, he told them, “I’m going to be OK. Asante is going to take care of me. And they’ve been doing that ever since.”

Amanda, the ARRMC nurse, had been taking an epidural class at the Smullin Center on that hot, windy morning when the fire broke out. When she turned her phone back on after the class, she saw multiple messages from her parents: “What do you want us to grab?”

Her parents escaped with Amanda’s 90-year-old grandmother to a cousin’s house in Medford. The next morning, they learned they’d lost their home and three others that Amanda’s father, a carpenter, had built in the Phoenix-Talent area.

“It was really hard to see my parents so upset,” she says. “It’s where they built their family and watched us grow up, all their mementos. The irreplaceable things, the things that we made as kids, was really hard.

“But we got so much love and support from family and friends and strangers right away, it was really overwhelming, just a great blessing. After that all happened, I thought, at the end of the day, it’s just material stuff. What really matters is your family and friends.”

It’s that dress!

Back in 2015, when I was in physical therapy school, I bought Terra her very first dress at the time. I couldn’t size it with her, so I kind of just guessed [based on] how I hug her. Surprisingly it was the right size. She got to take pictures of it and she looked really beautiful.

Unfortunately, this was lost in the fire. When my boss told me the Smullin Center had resources for us, I initially shut that down; I’m so stubborn. But he kept insisting.

I go over there and I look, and it’s like a treasure of everything — they got everything you could ever need. I’m about to go into the auditorium for the women’s clothing and there’s a rack of dresses. I brush against one dress and I grab it and I look. It happens to be the same dress that I got for Terra back in 2015! Not only was it the same dress, but it was the same size.

I made sure it was the last thing Terra got to see of what I brought home. I said, “Close your eyes” and I showed her the dress I bought, the very first one. She grabbed that thing like it was a cute critter and snuggled it.

It kind of gets me choked up because of all places in the Smullin Center, someone donated that. The same dress!

— Shawn Espejo, physical therapist, Asante Outpatient Rehabilitation Services

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