As summer heat, and the wildfire season, and the COVID-19 surge start to dissipate, there is a measure of hope creeping into Chico’s crisp fall nights. We at the Chico News & Review are feeling cautious but also grateful as we eye Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season on the horizon.
We are especially thankful for those locals who have given to the rest of us during a very trying year—those who volunteer to help the underprivileged, fight for the environment, administer lifesaving inoculations, assist those recovering from wildfires and bring joy during the pandemic. These are our 2021 Local Heroes.
The Fridge Fairy
For Rebecca Lampke, feeding the hungry is a family tradition.
“My dad was a trash man in Goleta,” she said of her childhood spent in the less-affluent suburbs of Santa Barbara. “Every day, my mom would pack sandwiches for him to take to homeless and hungry people along his route.”
Despite suffering from severe arthritis, chronic pain and mobility issues, Lampke volunteers as much as her health allows for food distribution efforts at the local Salvation Army, the First Christian Church of Paradise and with the Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano (which distributes food in Chico twice monthly). Her primary focus, though, is keeping the Chico Community Fridge clean and stocked.
The fridge—which anyone in need is welcome to take food from, or leave donations within—is located on Pine Street between West Sixth and Seventh streets. It was installed by an anonymous benefactor earlier this year, and Lampke took it upon herself to regularly clean and sanitize it. She also stocks it with fresh fruits, vegetables and dishes—such as spaghetti dinners, apple crisps and up to 30 sandwiches daily—that she prepares with help from donations and her boyfriend, Gilbert Pinedo.
More information is available on the Chico Community Fridge Facebook page.
Taking shots at the pandemic
At the start of the year, with coronavirus numbers surging, Butte County Public Health began receiving doses of COVID-19 vaccines to administer to the most vulnerable community members. The department, coordinating with local hospitals, set up public vaccination clinics and sought volunteers—preferably those with health-care certifications—to offset the demand for providers vitally needed to care for already ill patients.
Many stepped up; few with more dedication than Ruthie Cooper and Denise Gundersen. Both retired nurses, they’ve become mainstays at local COVID vaccine clinics.
Cooper drew on 20 years of experience organizing flu clinics at Enloe Medical Center, where she’d worked, to help the hospital launch its COVID vaccination efforts. She remains conspicuously present now that Enloe has combined clinics for flu and coronavirus.
Gundersen, a Magalia resident who worked at Adventist Health Feather River before the Camp Fire burned the hospital, has logged over 100 hours in county COVID vaccine clinics in Chico, Oroville and Gridley. She’s done so while continuing to serve as a director of Medspire Health, the nonprofit she co-founded after the Camp Fire with her daughters, also nurses.
Sharing the scene
The pandemic has been rough on the arts. Live gatherings were the first to go, and though the performances are starting to return, it’s going to take time for things to get back to normal for the artists, venues and patrons.
It’s also going to take cooperation, and in recent months, a group of locals has come together in collaboration to jump start the scene’s recovery by filming and showcasing online the return of shows. The Chico A.R.T. Collective (the middle initials stand for “Artists Rise Together”) was founded by three local musicians—Kat Johns, Michael Whittemore and Fox E. Jeff—and since the beginning of summer, they’ve been filming concerts, craft fairs and pop-up art shows. They’ve been all over the scene “wherever artists are out there doing their thing,” explained Johns in a recent phone interview.
As of press time, the group had posted 48 video shorts to its YouTube channel documenting the return of local performers and artists (while also providing a virtual option for those of us still social distancing)—everything from funky freaks Smokey the Groove in the City Plaza to Flume Street Market, the multidiscipline parking-lot pop-up at Flume and Eighth streets.
The all-volunteer collective is growing, too, adding more local scene supporters as it prepares to file for nonprofit status.
A friend to fire refugees
Frank Martinez knows what it’s like to flee from fire. Thankfully, his property in Oroville survived a nearby blaze shortly after he moved there in 2016. But as fire seasons have grown more devastating and deadly for Butte County communities, Martinez has made it a personal mission to make sure survivors have support and help meeting their immediate, emergency needs. His dedication has been unwavering since he joined relief efforts for the Cascade and Ponderosa fires in 2017.
He’s been involved in myriad responses to many blazes since then, including gathering and delivering food, water and other basic necessities and taking in dozens of evacuees. He’s been a tireless advocate for the tiny town of Berry Creek, co-founding Berry Creek United after the devastating North Complex Fire. Through this organization, his team of volunteers hosts regular free community meals, provides much-needed supplies and advocates for long-term rebuilding efforts.
Martinez has continued to work hard despite having limited financial resources and dealing with his own health issues. He told the CN&R, “All these forks in the road keep happening, but nothing’s gonna stop me from doing what I need to do to help other people that need help.”
The morning of Feb. 16, Mary Kay Benson joined a small group of protesters as Chico police, city workers and a bulldozer razed a small homeless encampment off Boucher Street.
Her attendance was unsurprising—she’s maintained a ubiquitous presence at actions for the unhoused and climate issues throughout this tumultuous year—but it’s worth mentioning because she went straight to the protest after working an overnight volunteer shift at Safe Space Winter Shelter.
“I’m 73, low-income and disabled,” she said recently of her unflagging activism. “I’d love to retire, but my soul just won’t let me.”
Benson has been part of environmental group 350 Butte County since 2017 and became increasingly involved with homeless issues more recently. She helped found the North State Shelter Team (NSST), an action-oriented offshoot of “helper” coalition Butte County Shelter For All, earlier this year.
“Climate change and homelessness are so multifacted and intersectional that it’s easy to come into one or the other from the other angle,” she said.
In addition to walking the walk, Benson talks the talk: She handles communications for NSST and 350 Butte. “That’s my superpower. I try to keep all of the volunteers up to date with news and events that are pertinent to climate and homelessness issues.”
Like many the CN&R has chosen as Local Heroes, Benson was humble about receiving the acknowledgement. “I’m just one of hundreds who give our hearts daily,” she said. “We inspire each other to keep on going.”
Two for community
Partners in life as well as activism, Bryce Goldstein and Addison Winslow make their marks on the community individually and collectively.
Both frequently press government officials for change—notably, at meetings of the Chico City Council and Butte County Board of Supervisors. They co-author (without credit) Chico Green Hot Takes, a blog of sorts on Facebook, Instagram and Medium (all
@chicogreenhottakes) covering housing development, road safety and other local environmental concerns. Both are active with the Butte Environmental Council: Goldstein as a board member and committee chair, Winslow as a member and advocate.
Goldstein also serves on the Chico Planning Commission, which she chaired last year, and on the Butte County Democratic Party’s Campaign Services Committee. She advocates for transportation planning—formally through BEC and by collaborating with Chico State students.
Winslow, acknowledged in last year’s Local Heroes among a volunteer group working with unhoused Chicoans, continues to amplify issues surrounding homelessness. He volunteered for, then worked for, Chico Housing Action Team; and serves on the board of the nonprofit Northern California Environmental Defense Center.