One warm September day a young man drove up to the Lion’s food tent near Gates, Oregon, pulling a flatbed with a grand piano on it. He is a pianist in a large orchestra, but due to COVID-19 all of his performances were canceled. Since the people couldn’t come to him, he took his music to them.

His audience on this day was one that desperately needed it.

A man plays a piano on top of a flatbed trailer
In September a pianist played all day as the Silverton Lions and Silverton Elks Club members served hot meals to hundreds.

The pianist played for an entire day next to the tent where the Silverton Lions and members of the Silverton Elks Club served hot meals to hundreds. About three quarters of the diners were survivors of the Beachie Creek fire that just weeks before took at least 1,000 homes in the beautiful Santiam Canyon and killed five people.

The piano music and hot meals were “Fuel for the body and comfort for the heart,” says Silverton Lion Heidi Ostrom.

The Worst Kind of Wakeup

For people in the small town of Gates, Oregon, and all around it, the fire came out of nowhere on the night of Sept. 7, taking their homes, barns, vehicles, livestock, and their security. The flames spread quickly in the high winds, and many woke in the middle of the night to see trees ablaze outside their door. For some, their homes were already burning.

With just the clothes on their backs and pets in their arms, they fled and drove through flames and falling trees. Their tires burned to the rims and the soles of their shoes melted from the tremendous heat.

A burned car from the Beachie Creek Fire.
What began as a small, contained fire covering 469 acres grew overnight to one that eventually burned more than 200,000 acres.

The Beachie Creek Fire began as a small contained blaze on Aug. 16, according to the U.S. Forest Service. But the unusual Sept. 7 windstorm, like few in Oregon’s history, transformed it overnight from 469 acres to more than 131,000 acres, and in the end, fire damage totaled 200,000 acres.

The Recovery

Silverton Lion Ward Frederick, who like many club members was evacuated but lives in an area that was unharmed, has 30 years in the restaurant business behind him. He immediately focused on how the fire victims could be fed. Also a member of the Silverton Elks Club, Frederick brought the two organizations and their resources together, and when the roads opened on Sept. 19, he sadly saw what he expected. Most homes in the town of 500, and about the same number around it, were reduced to rubble. But to his pleasant surprise, three buildings stood: The Gates United Church of Christ, city hall, and the fire department.

Scorched mailboxes lie on the gground, their posts burned from the Beachie Creek Fire.
Scorched mailboxes lie on the ground, their posts burned from the Beachie Creek Fire.

The next day, the Lions began to set up a kitchen outside the church, which was being used for relief aide. And on the day after, they served hundreds under a roof overhang and a tent, using the grills and supplies the Lions had ready in their trailer for their annual harvest breakfast that had been canceled because of COVID-19.

By the end of that first week, the team of volunteers grew, and so did the number in need.  In one day, 500 people were fed.

“Ward did an amazing job at organizing all of this,” says Ostrom.

By mid-October, roughly 300 people a day were still coming to the tent for breakfast, lunch, or dinner “of restaurant quality,” adds Frederick, “and under COVID restaurant guidelines.”

The Albany Lions and Stayton Lions, as well as Lions from Eugene, Oregon, had also come forth to help.

A New Perspective

“The volunteers have been amazing, absolutely incredible,” says Ostrom who was also evacuated in the wee hours of the morning but remained unharmed. Her long days at the food tent gave her time to get to know the survivors as they mourned their losses. But she noticed they were all quick to give thanks for their survival and the kindness of strangers.

A Lion prepares cheeseburgers at a makeshift food tent.
A Lion preps cheeseburgers for refugees of the Beachie Creek Fire.

One man, a retired emergency response consultant, told her he has now seen disaster from both sides. He and his wife lost their historic home, their outbuildings, and all their possessions, suffering burns during their failed efforts to save their herd of goats and their cats while fleeing the fire. Only one goat survived. It rode with them in their Subaru to safety.

He is hopeful, and has plans to rebuild, but a month after the fire, some families still live in tents they pitched alongside their burned home. Others, without family or the means for a hotel, manage out of borrowed campers, vans, and trailers. The Lions food tent remains open.

Acts of Service Spread

Frederick says the team of organizers decided only one of three things would make them discontinue their food service: No more need, no more money,

Lions food tent
Lions have pledged to keep serving food until there is no more need, no more money, or no more volunteers.

or no more volunteers.

More than a month after that dreadful night, 200-300 people come every day for food. The money has continued to come in from generous donors, and dedicated volunteers are still plentiful. They give in multiple ways.

What is perhaps most striking about the relief efforts in Gates is the way the good deeds seem to be spreading. As residents saw the need that Lions filled and the relief it brought survivors, they began looking for their own ways to help.

One woman wanted to honor her husband who died in March during COVID restrictions. She posted a notice on Facebook that she was starting a tool lending library and accepting donations of good used and new tools to take to the people of Gates in a U-Haul truck. Within a few weeks she was on the road with her fourth truckload of tools.

Hungry firefighters enjoyed a hearty lunch at the Lions food tent.

Workers from a bakery arrived with desserts galore. A jazz band came to perform. And one morning the weary diners enjoyed pans of fresh cinnamon rolls made by women from the Mennonite church in nearby Scio. The women returned multiple times to bring items for the children and to help clean and cook. One day they provided the makings of homemade biscuits they baked on site to go with the Lion’s country-style gravy.

“People have been so generous. The Silverton Elks have been terrific partners, and we have met amazing, absolutely incredible people,” says Ostrom. “I am honored to be working in Gates. From the beginning, I have felt that I am gaining far more than I am giving by being there.”

“It feels good to see our services being utilized,” says Frederick. “But it’s also sad. You wish you could do more for them than just giving them a meal.

“It’s good that instead of them having to come to us, we’re coming to them,” he says.

And they’re bringing more with them. More folks who see a need and jump in to help. More people willing to come to those in need, bringing their own unique skills and resources to provide some small bit of relief.

Just like the pianist.