An extended family of Liberian refugees who suffered a devastating fire earlier this month at their Capay Valley farm are celebrating Christmas with a sense of hope, thanks to the support of friends and strangers.
The Tarlesson family, who grow African vegetables and raise free-range chickens on their bucolic spread in western Yolo County, watched in shock Dec. 4 as flames destroyed their main outbuilding, just feet from the family farmhouse.
The fire didn't touch the home where more than 20 people had been sleeping before someone sounded the alarm.
"It was just God's grace," said the Rev. Roosevelt Tarlesson, family patriarch and pastor at the United Methodist Church in the village of Guinda.
While the blaze spared the house, it completely destroyed the outbuilding and its contents, including 100,000 textbooks ready for shipment to war-torn Liberia. A large mound of blackened pages, with chickens pecking through the wreckage, was all that remained last week.
The flames also consumed nearly all of the family members' clothing. They used the wooden building as a walk-in closet because storage space in the house, where four children sleep in each bedroom, is so tight.
The fire happened on a Sunday night. By Monday morning, the children, many of whom grew up in refugee camps, had no clothes to wear to school.
Rural firefighters responded within minutes, but the fire had already engulfed the aging wooden structure, Tarlesson said. He said the fire was believed to be electrical in origin.
Because wires and pipes ran through the building, the fire knocked out plumbing and electricity to the house for a week.
"It was chaos," he said.
Since word spread of their losses, the Tarlessons have seen an outpouring of aid including checks, gift cards and offers to help rebuild.
The aid has come from their rural neighbors, local churches and California State Grange members. Strangers also have helped, mailing checks or driving up to the property on a dirt track from Highway 16 to make donations in person.
Some of the donors have attended the family's annual celebration, held each July 4 for the past few years, in which the Tarlessons treat all comers to traditional Liberian foods, singing and dance.
The free events are their way of giving thanks for the peace and bounty of their lives here after emigrating from Liberia, a nation wracked by years of civil war.
"These are holiday times, but people are really responding," Tarlesson said. "We are unbelievably grateful. It's what I'd call helping strangers, like the Bible says. We feel blessed to have people respond in such a way."
Among those who have helped are Duane Chamberlain, a Yolo County supervisor and farmer who wrote the family a check for $1,000, though he hardly knew them.
"It's a unique place," Chamberlain said, explaining that he'd visited the Tarlesson farm on a tour. "They're helping refugees. We need more of that type of thing."
Chamberlain said he, too, had suffered major losses when a feed store and hay barn he owned burned to the ground. He said he knew the family could use help with the cleanup costs.
Bob McFarland, president of the California State Grange, a rural community group, said members had sent in about $3,000 to help the family, who belong to the Western Yolo Grange in Guinda.
"The Tarlessons are well respected in the Grange," he said. "Their personal story of survival is remarkable. They've found a place in our hearts."
Roosevelt Tarlesson said his immediate goal is to secure donations of materials and construction expertise to rebuild the destroyed structure, which was critical to the family's needs.
"We're hoping to rebuild as quickly as we can after the holidays," he said, standing beside a field of greens being irrigated in the winter sunlight.
His second goal is to restore the collection of textbooks that had been bound for students in Liberia. The books that were destroyed had been gathered from school districts across the Sacramento region over a period of years.
"After 15 or 20 years of war, everything was destroyed there," he said. "Even before the war it was hard to find textbooks in the rural part of Africa.
"As much as we are focused on ourselves," he said, "we're also focused on helping people back in Liberia."