Disasters sometimes bring complete strangers together in such profound ways that they end up feeling like family. That’s what happened when Christine Montgomery met Jenny Yao in the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs fire.
Yao is a long-term recovery team leader with the Buddhist compassionate relief organization Tzu Chi Foundation Santa Rosa. Often likened to the American Red Cross, Tzu Chi sprang into action in Sonoma County hours after the fires started and remained for two months with a working base of 500 volunteers. It was one of 41 federal, state and local agencies providing emergency help and services to fire victims at the FEMA-run local assistance center in downtown Santa Rosa.
When Montgomery, then 65, walked into the center two days after the fire, she was facing myriad problems. The previous week, severe cramping and blood clots had brought her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Doctors took care of her immediate pain and bleeding, and she was scheduled for a biopsy; Montgomery suspected that the malignant melanoma she had survived decades ago had returned.
As scary as that prospect was, other problems fought for precedence. She had barely escaped the flames raging through Santa Rosa’s Journey’s End mobile home park, and now — since the National Guard had cordoned off the area — she didn’t know if her home had survived the fire. Did she have a home or didn’t she? If not, her extremely limited financial resources would make it difficult to relocate.
“I was in shock and disbelief at the LAC that day,” recalled Montgomery, a former substitute teacher. “I felt hopeless. I didn’t know where to turn, what to do, or even what I needed.”
Jenny Yao remembers well her first meeting with Montgomery.
“Christine came in soon after the LAC opened,” she said. “I interviewed her and, like many people during those early times, she was scared, shocked and crying. Almost everyone cried then, even men. Many people couldn’t even talk; they were simply speechless.”
Yao, a former pharmacologist and drug researcher who has worked with Tzu Chi for a decade, listened with empathy as Montgomery expressed her worries and fears.
“Jenny was so wonderful,” Montgomery recalled. “I felt that somebody was really listening and caring. I confided my fear that the cancer had come back, and she told me not to worry — her husband had developed cancer and had come out fine. We had such a huge connection. She reached out and said ‘We can help you.’ And they did.”
Yao immediately put Montgomery at the top of Tzu Chi’s priority list for individual case management.
“It was because of the cancer,” she said. “We gave her a cash card for her immediate needs.”
“That $600 was a godsend to me,” said Montgomery.
A few days later, Montgomery’s fears materialized. She was diagnosed with three different forms of cancer: Mixed Müllerian tumor, Ovarian clear cell carcinoma and Rhabdomyosarcoma (rarely found in adults). In November 2017, she underwent a radical hysterectomy, followed in January by a round of 10 chemotherapy sessions (she is due to start a round of 28 radiation treatments later this month).
“The treatment for her rare kind of cancer was super- aggressive,” said Yao. “Round after round of chemotherapy.”
Free San Francisco Performance
The Journey’s End choir group, sponsored by Tzu Chi and composed of former residents of the mobile park, will be performing a holiday concert at San Francisco City Hall at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 10, together with 30 pre-kindergarten students. A 66-person chartered bus will pick up the choir at 9 a.m. at the Coddingtown mall Macy’s; members of the public are welcome to come along for free in the limited number of empty seats. After the performance the bus will take a one-hour tour around San Francisco before returning. For more information, call Howard Tong at 415-307-8838.
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