Kimberly Spainhower hugs her daughter Chloe, 13, while her husband Ryan Spainhower (R) searches through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise, California on November 18, 2018.
Kimberly Spainhower hugs her daughter Chloe, 13, while her husband Ryan Spainhower (R) searches through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise, California on November 18, 2018. - 
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The most destructive fire in California history all but wiped out Paradise, a town with a population of just over 26,000 people nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Surrounding communities were also seriously damaged in the Camp Fire. As local residents figure out how to rebuild their lives and what to do next, one of the few uplifting notes is the millions of dollars in aid that have poured in from around the country and internationally.

That money is funding  shelters, food, mental health counseling, care for pets and a host of other services for fire survivors, as well a cash grants. One other form of donation? Gift cards. But how do the donated cards end up in the hands of the people who need them most? Marketplace followed the journey of a gift card in the aftermath of California's Camp Fire. 

Shep Harper, a retired firefighter who lives in the small city of Winters, California — about a two hour drive from Paradise — shows up at a local benefit for fire victims with $100 in Target gift cards in his pocket. He's seen and fought the destructive power of wild fires and wants to contribute to the relief  "to help somebody out up in Paradise, that their life could be a little easier right now," Harper said. 

Along with Harper, hundreds attend the benefit held at the Berryessa Brewing Company, with live music from a local modern bluegrass band called The Muddy Waders. The brewery has rebranded one of its beers "Thirst Responder," with a pledge to donate all sales, not just profit, to the fire relief effort.

A line of people wait in line to buy beer at a benefit for fire victims held at Berryessa Brewing Company in Winters, California.
A line of people wait in line to buy beer at a benefit for fire victims held at Berryessa Brewing Company in Winters, California. - 

A line stretches out the door and past another small, plastic table where volunteers collect yet more donations. Harper gives his gift cards to a volunteer, who puts them in a lock box with other cards and cash. Winters city councilwoman Jesse Loren, who organized the event, said the donations and gift cards would allow fire survivors to choose what they need, instead of picking through donated items. "Everybody's displaced, and hopefully they can have some financial benefit from this, even if it's just so they can go buy some new clothes, or socks or school supplies from this," Loren said.

The benefit raises more than $16,000, a third of the amount made up of gift cards. From the event, the lock box heads to Winters City Hall, where officials count the donations, deposit the cash and then sent a check to the nonprofit aid organization chosen to provide relief. It mails the gift cards to the same organization.

Hundreds of checks lie on a small table in the main room of the North Valley Community Foundation, a nine-person operation founded 13 years ago in Chico, California, about 20 miles from Paradise. After the fire, it transformed overnight into the epicenter of local aid activity.

"This is like nothing we've ever done before," said Alexa Benson-Valavanis, the organization's CEO. "Now we literally go down [to pick up mail] with a box, and the entire box is filled with envelopes and checks."

Tables of aid workers, government and non-profit, fill the former Sears department store in Chico, California, sitting at booths. Each one offers aid, whether federal disaster assistance, loans, unemployment benefits or cash grants.
Tables of aid workers, government and non-profit, fill the former Sears department store in Chico, California, sitting at booths. Each one offers aid, whether federal disaster assistance, loans, unemployment benefits or cash grants. - 

Benson-Valavanis said about $10 million in donations poured in during November alone, more than the foundation's entire 2016 contributions. Fire relief funds have been donated by individual donors plus brands and big names, including Verizon and NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers. 

The foundation's role is not to provide direct aid, but to act as kind of a clearinghouse, identifying other on-the-ground organizations who can help. In the fire's immediate aftermath the foundation dispensed $10,000 to each of 13 shelters in the area. 

"At first, they were just churches opening their doors, a martial arts studio opening its doors," Benson-Valavanis said. "And so we immediately got just a small portion of money out to them to make sure they could have food, water and blankets."

The foundation has pledged to take one cent on each dollar for its operations, before passing the rest of the money on. So far, it has spent about $800,000. Benson-Valavanis said it is holding the bulk of funds as it determines the best way to spend it for long-term needs of survivors, as well as to assist an eventual rebuild of Paradise. She hands the gift cards over to another, even smaller nonprofit.

The Chico Posse Foundation is made up of five women who all have other full-time jobs. They began distributing gift cards to needy families a few years ago.

Peggy Mead, the group's treasurer, pulls out a box that once contained manila envelopes, but is now stuffed with gift cards, all donated for fire relief.

"The great ones are really the Visa [gift cards], because you can use them on anything," Mead said. "But we've gotten gasoline cards, we've gotten grocery cards, restaurants and then generic stores where you can get everything — like Walmart, Target."

She estimates the group has distributed $30,000 in gift cards so far, which survivors can apply online to receive.

Jessica Ranier picks up a packet of gift cards Mead assembled for her. She is dressed in a T-shirt and sweatshirt donated to her by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. after the fire.

A Paradise native, Ranier tells a harrowing story of evacuating late the morning of the fire. She and her mother each took a car and got separated during the drive. Ranier describes seeing her former workplace, the local KFC by her house, on fire. Later, she sat in gridlock while both sides of the road burned.

Her home appears to have survived, but she's not sure in what condition, and she has not been allowed back. "I can't use my things. I can't sleep in my bed. I can't go there," Ranier said.

Before leaving, she stuffed a few clothes into her suitcases, but she shakes her head at other items she grabbed, in her haste.

"A bike rack with no bike," Ranier said. "I took snow boots, because they were expensive. And I took a brand new down comforter."

She shakes a little bit as she opens the envelope containing her gift cards. A stack that includes Target, American Express and one for McDonald's.

Mead, having heard Ranier's story, slides her another card for gas.

Ranier thinks of a few items she may pick up at the store. "I need, like, plastic bags — quart-sized ziplock bags," she said. "Maybe like a windbreaker would be nice for right now? But ultimately maybe, sheets for a bed, once I find a permanent home."

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