A series of personal items are laid out on a bed. It looks like typical scene of someone packing for an overnight trip; there is a bag, a change of clothes, and a laptop. But this is not a typical suitcase.
Look closer and you’ll realize that a pair of tan slip on shoes are written on with a black marker:
Fire Shoes 12-4-17
These are the only personal items that Dawn Reily was able to grab at a moment’s notice when the Thomas Fire forced her family to evacuate last December. With her parents, her daughter Jade, and 18 animals to also evacuate, these items are all Dawn was able to grab for herself in the minutes before fleeing their home. These everyday items are now cherished possessions from the disaster that destroyed her Ventura Skyline home on December 4, 2017.
As the Thomas Fire approached her home, Dawn knew right away where to take her family: the Red Cross shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Once they arrived at the shelter, they were greeted by Red Cross volunteers who provided cots and a safe place for her family to sleep. Dawn, a former Humane Society employee, immediately went to work through the night helping set up the animal shelter next door and supporting other families as they came to the shelter with their pets.
The next morning Dawn looked up at the hillside in the direction of her home and knew it was gone. She wrote on Facebook that day, “Our mind wanders about what you will miss that you didn’t take out of the house and between what you are grateful to still. Jade just said, ‘If someone asks me what I miss, I’d say the whole thing. The feeling of being home.’ I agree.”
On Wednesday, December 6, Dawn went to see the remains of their home for the first time. As an artist, Dawn not only lost her home, but her livelihood. Decades of work and sketchbooks were reduced to ash.
“We came around the corner and completely lost it with anger, fear, and every emotion you can think of,” said Dawn, “We were walking around our house, my daughter was crying about losing her ballet shoes.”
Once the initial shock of the fire wore off, Dawn and her family began the long and painful road to recovery. But they had support from their loved ones, the community, and organizations like the Red Cross and United Way. They found out about the Red Cross Service Center that had opened at the Ventura County Credit Union and went to see what resources would be available.
“It was awesome,” said Dawn, “Jade got a Mickey Mouse doll, there were refreshment there,” said Dawn, “You just don’t even think. It’s so hard to process. People ask what you need and you just need everything.”
“Having a place to talk and get information and be surprised at the fact that you’re eligible for assistance is so helpful. You’re at a loss for what to do and how to start. It’s overwhelming. To have someone know what the next steps are and what to do is a godsend,” she said.
Donations made to the Red Cross and United Way in the aftermath of the fire allowed these organizations to provide critical financial assistance to families like Dawn’s as they began to recover. With these funds, Dawn was able to purchase new art supplies to revive her business and start generating income, and purchase other important resources for their family.
“Everybody that has helped us, we called them our angels. All these angels came forward to help,” said Dawn.
Despite losing almost everything but the clothes on her back, Dawn is now giving back to the community that supported her. She is working on a poster that represents the strength and resilience of the Ventura County community.
“We live in such a beautiful, strong community and we will rebuild and we will be stronger for it,” said Dawn, “Part of my healing process is by teaching and being open, talking about it, and if someone can gain strength by my experience, then I’ve done my job.”
She plans to donate the proceeds from the poster sales back to the organizations she felt gave so much to her: the Red Cross, United Way, Food Share, and Project Understanding.
“Out of the ashes rises the phoenix. It’s like rebirth,” said Dawn, “I feel like a different person.”
Giving Day is Wednesday, March 28.
The Red Cross is asking everyone to support families like Dawn’s who are impacted by disasters on Giving Day – Wednesday, March 28. Your donation can #Help1Family and provide hope and urgent relief such as food, blankets and other essentials to people who need it most. Giving Day is a 24-hour fundraising campaign supporting the work of the Red Cross, helping people across the country in need of emergency assistance. Donate now by visiting redcross.org/givingday, or by texting REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10.