June 17, 2013 Updated: June 18, 2013 at 9:17 am
The only people who can truly understand how others feel are those who have been in the same situation.
That was the thought behind a picnic Monday at Woodstone Park in Rockrimmon, where Waldo Canyon fire evacuees hosted a free lunch for Black Forest fire evacuees.
Sunday is the one-year anniversary of the start of the Waldo Canyon fire, which burned 347 homes and 18,247 acres in Colorado Springs and the foothills to the west.
"There's been so much support. So many of us have experienced the same thing this year and last year. It's awesome to know people care," said 16-year-old Matthew Miller, a Black Forest evacuee.
Suzanne Lung, a Waldo Canyon fire evacuee who teaches at The Classical Academy, the largest charter school in Colorado with some 3,500 students, came up with the idea. Like many in the community, she's been wondering how she could lend a hand since the fire started on June 11.
"One of my student's parents were on TV, on the news, talking about how they had to evacuate. They were emotional, and I got emotional, and I thought, 'I have to help,'" she said.
Lung talked with her family and prayed about what she could do. A few days ago, she and a friend delivered large baskets overflowing with snacks to two nearby hotels where many evacuees were staying.
Then, it came to her: Last year's evacuees could be of assistance to this year's displaced families. Area businesses including Salsa Brava, Old Chicago, TGI Friday's, Outback Steakhouse, Starbucks, Whole Foods and Oliver's Deli, - some of which had to evacuate during last summer's wildfire - donated a banquet of Italian, Mexican and American food.
Black Forest fire evacuees who stopped by the park said they appreciated the food and camaraderie, as they bonded through the connection of a natural disaster.
"It shows you what this community is really about," said Floyd Neiswanger, who retired three years ago from a public defender's office in California and moved to Black Forest. He lost his home in the fire and saw a flyer about Monday's event at his hotel.
"I was hoping to run into people who went through this in the Waldo Canyon fire - you don't go to class for something like this," he said.
Neiswanger and other evacuees got plenty of hugs and kind words from those who understood the trauma and angst associated with disaster.
"This is what makes Colorado Springs really special and why I fell in love with the place," Neiswanger said of the hospitality.
Sixteen-year-old Anna Roberson described being evacuated as "a lot of nothingness."
She, her parents, her two brothers and their dog have been holed up in a local hotel.
"There's not a lot to do at the hotel - you don't have a lot of your stuff," Anna said.
The Pine Creek High School student didn't grab a lot, but she did pack her beloved basketball jersey, which she wore to the picnic.
Although her family's home appears to have been spared, their next-door neighbor's house is destroyed.
"It's mixed emotions right now. I have so many friends who lost their homes. It's real. I don't feel I have a reason to be sad because my house is still standing, and I want to help, too," Anna said.
Glen Livers, who lost the home he built 18 years ago in Black Forest, shared the twist of irony that runs through his story. An electrician, Livers has been wiring homes being rebuilt in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood after the Waldo Canyon fire.
"I've been consoling those people, and now they're consoling me," he said. "We've been helping each other get through it."
Livers said he's now "trying to pick up the pieces" from finding out his home was gone just hours after he fled last Wednesday.
"We didn't see it happening on the news; we saw it happening at the end of our driveway," he said.
Livers, whose 11-year-old daughter, Grace, attends The Classical Academy, said he was thankful for the efforts of those fighting the fire as well as the outpouring of community support.
Then, he asked what many have been thinking: "Who would have ever thought this would have happened twice in one year in the same community?"