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Chico State

Feeding a Grieving Community

Two female college students stand back to back in front of trees.
Jason Halley / University Photographer

Xochitl Quezada Mejia (left) and Veronica Pantoja (right) are two volunteers whom have been serving dinners to those on the ridge, photographed on Monday, November 4, 2019 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Editor’s Note: As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, we are honoring its impact on our community with a series of stories embracing the themes of remembrance, recovery, and resurgence.

Every Thursday night at Paradise Alliance Church, free meals are served for anyone to enjoy—but mostly to accommodate and feed those affected by the Camp Fire. Dozens of tables and well over 100 chairs fill up every week inside the church’s cozy gym with families, friends, and neighbors from Paradise and surrounding communities. Tables outside handle any overflow, with patio heaters to warm visitors on chilly evenings.

Veronica Pantoja and Xochitl Quezada Mejia—both recreation administration majors set to graduate next spring—have been volunteering here since early September, as part of professor Laura McLachlin’s “Recreation Therapy and Inclusion” class. Students are required to spend a minimum of 15 hours during the semester with a population that has a special need. McLachlin said this can include those with physical disabilities, mental health challenges, or those who have experienced trauma.

“The course is designed to break down negative attitudes, barriers, and fears towards those who may be different,” McLachlin said. “Some of the topics covered include people-first language, spending half a day in a wheelchair, disability etiquette, and evaluating the accessibility of campus and downtown.”

Two women stand in a kitchen with their hands on a stainless steel counter.
Xochitl Quezada Mejia (left) and Veronica Pantoja (right) have been spending their Thursday nights this semester preparing free meals for those affected by the Camp Fire.

Even with volunteer sites like the Boys & Girls Club of the North Valley, Esplanade House, and the Peg Taylor Center available, Pantoja and Quezada Mejia both knew they wanted to support those within the foothill communities. It quickly became more than a class assignment for them.

“I wasn’t able to help last year during the fire where they needed it the most,” Quezada Mejia said, “so now I can.”

Paradise Alliance Church has been providing free meals every Thursday night since spring without fail. Not even a recent Pacific Gas & Electric Public Safety Power Shutoff could cancel these meals—although fewer residents did show up. Pantoja and Quezada Mejia have helped fill bellies with everything from fried chicken and spaghetti to tacos and burgers—but they know their role has more than a nutritional benefit.

On a recent evening, they quickly help fill trays with hot dogs, chips, and cookies before the food is whisked over to tables a few feet away for the hungry, friendly crowd. At times, the meals are taken directly off the trays before a volunteer can place them on the tables. As smiles and laughter are exchanged, “thank you” is heard time and again, and many greetings are on a first-name basis.

That’s the power of community on display.

“They come in and they see their neighbors, they see the people they saw last week, and that sparks more and more conversation,” Quezada Mejia said. “It’s a positive place where they know they can go at least once a week, and it’s something they can look forward to.”

Pantoja said that while she’s helping to facilitate the bonding of this community, she’s also enjoying the benefits of working side-by-side with people who share the same goal of helping others.

Two women laugh together outside with tables and chairs in the background.
“We’re all here for similar reasons, to help and to give a free meal. But when you come in here on a Thursday night, you can feel that community that’s growing, and it helps to build that bond,” said Quezada Mejia (left).

“I like the bonding that’s happening, meeting new people, and meeting the kitchen staff,” she said. “It’s fun going to a place where you’re welcome and seeing people happy.”

Pantoja’s motivations for volunteering are driven by an innate sense of compassion. Being able to do something as simple as plate food for a population working its way through unimaginable recovery enriches her values.

“I’m the kind of person that cares for others, and I just want them to know that we’re here for them,” Pantoja said. “If I’d been in the same position, I would’ve felt happy that someone was there for me.”

Knowing the tragedy that befell this and nearby communities on November 8, 2018, Quezada Mejia said this simple meal has not only introduced her to the people of Paradise and the neighboring communities but the service-learning experience illuminated a larger truth about this resilient town.

“We’re all here for similar reasons, to help and to give a free meal. But when you come in here on a Thursday night, you can feel that community that’s growing, and it helps to build that bond,” she said. “You realize that Paradise is here and that it’s still very much alive.”