Eric Valenzuela lives near Santa Paula, California. While the area is, for now, safe from the wildfires ravaging Southern California, many young kids he knows had their homes and everything they owned destroyed by the blaze. Recognizing the need in his community, Eric brought his own computer, gaming console, and board games to the Santa Paula Community Center where many evacuated families were staying to give them something to play. Then, he posted a photo of the space on Reddit and the image went instantly viral. Redditors and internet good samaritans started making donations and his neighbors got in on the act after it hit the locals news.
Fatherly spoke to Valenzuela about why he decided to chip in and why keeping kids busy (and happy) can help.
What made you decide to create a gaming space for the kids?
They all have their own tablets and game consoles that their parents paid money for. But that was all lost in the fire. Often, these kids don’t have any places to go. If they had an area where they could hang out together and play games, it would make the situation much better for them and they won’t be thinking about the fire. So, I took the games over to the shelter over at the community center outside Santa Paula. They opened up a few days ago and I went there the second day to volunteer. I brought my computer, my PlayStation, and a couple of board games for the kids to play.
It’s pretty cool that you’re doing this. Do you see this as a longer-term commitment?
I’m organizing with the city to do a charity arcade. There’s going to be an arcade for whatever surplus computers and game consoles we have. People pay whatever they want, and the kids can play for a while, and the proceeds will go to Red Cross and other affected communities around the county. People come by to help rebuild.
What has the reaction been from kids and parents about the space you created?
Everybody loves it. Even people who just come to drop stuff off, they want to see the game station. They watch the kids play Sonic and Rock Band. These are adults. People actually joined in to play some games before they left.
That sounds great for these families, especially because it sounds like they may be relocated a few times before this passes.
They’re going to ship the families off to a bigger shelter because this area is getting crowded. We’ll keep supplies here and send them over when they need them.
Presumably, they might. It doesn’t seem like these kids are necessarily heading home anytime soon.
Several of them lost their homes. Some of their homes are salvageable, but they can’t return yet because the fire’s still active in the area.
In the areas around Santa Paula, all of the brush has been burned, and the city is safe. But Ventura and Fillmore and Ojai, they’re still in danger. Fires are spreading into the cities now. The fire is only about 5 percent contained. Those areas are still under mandatory evacuations. It could be a couple of weeks.
Are you working on a crew site? Are you fighting the fires right now?
No, I’m working at a factory at the other end of town. That’s my main job. In my spare time, I’m volunteering at the shelter. I have to work on weekends.
Was this something new for you — to jump in and help the community or do you volunteer a lot in general?
Normally, I don’t volunteer. But I do religious service, which is a way of helping people who are emotionally stressed, with the Bible. It’s better than just handing out paperwork because you’re being active in the community.
I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, so I go preaching about town very often. Maybe on weekends, I’ll see these families occasionally because it’s a part of my territory for a few months.
Have you seen any wildfires as big as this before?
When I was younger, the age of the kids that are here, there were fires — they would happen almost every year. But they weren’t really close to town so we were relatively safe. There was a river between us. But now that river has dried out.
Were you surprised by the public reaction to your post on Reddit?
I was, actually. I’ve been making posts a couple times this week about the fire and everybody ignored it. This time, I just posted about how I was helping because there were no posts about the fire at all on the front page. Nobody knew about it and so I made a post about how I was helping and now everybody in the world wants to help.
Where can our readers send stuff?
The shelter is the Santa Paula Community Shelter at 530 West Main Street, Santa Paula, California, 93060. The city says they are going to start accepting the packages and put them into storage until we are ready to send them out to everybody that was affected, not just in Santa Paula, but Ventura, Ojai, and even Los Angeles.