Childhood connection leads to help for wildfire survivors in southern Oregon


Barry Braden listening to Merry Harris tell the story of the blanket and quilts. Photo supplied by Merry Harris.

by Sally Blanchard

It all started with a Zoom call to her hometown church.

A member of a church in Medford, Oregon re-connected via Zoom last summer with a church she attended during her formative years in a small town in Wisconsin. The people she chatted with at her childhood church came to care about her and when they heard about the devastating wildfires in September, they jumped at the chance to help.

Merry Harris’s family joined the River Falls United Methodist Church congregation in Wisconsin in 1951 and she grew up attending the church. She continued to receive the newsletter for years after she moved out of the state and last August read about a weekly coffee hour set up during the COVID-19 pandemic on Zoom. She decided to sign on. She enjoyed reconnecting with her hometown church and hearing the local news. She continued checking in and chatting with Pastor Amy DeLong and getting to know the church members on the video calls.

One of those calls was on Sept. 7, the day before the Alameda wildfire swept through the Southern Oregon towns of Phoenix and Talent (near Medford and Ashland) and destroyed large portions of the towns. It left many of the residents homeless. DeLong called the next day after seeing national news reports of the fires, to check in.

Harris recounted her story of evacuating at night after seeing flames advancing from a few miles away. Fortunately, her home was not damaged, but she knew others who lost everything.

The River Falls church members wanted to know how they could help. Members there raised more than $500 to send to the Ashland UMC fire relief fund – 100 percent of the money given to the fund is going to fire victims to cover costs not covered by insurance. So far the Ashland UMC fund has provided furnishings for the office of one couple,  repairs of a woman’s home so she could return [hers was one of the few left standing in a mobile home park that was mostly decimated] and a variety of gift cards. More funds will be needed as homes are rebuilt and furnishings are needed.

photo provided by Merry Harris

Harris then received a package with six quilts made by the DeLong’s partner Val Zellmer, and a fleece blanket that had been given to the pastor as a gift of support during a difficult period in her life that she wanted to pass on to bless another person. These were distributed at The Shoppes at 24, a relief center hub for the Phoenix and Talent area residents. Barry Braden, assistant Disaster Relief Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference, helped with distribution.

Harris was deeply touched that the Wisconsin church members she had reconnected with only recently, wanted to help.

“I believe God works though people,” Harris said. “They were welcoming and inclusive to me in my situation even though most had never been to Oregon.”