THE BUZZ: It Takes a Village

By on August 23, 2016

How an activist, two aspiring politicos and a community solved a housing crisis.

The valley’s housing emergency has inspired some people, like Jessica Sell Chambers, to open their homes and find creative ways to house struggling community members.

The valley’s housing emergency has inspired some people, like Jessica Sell Chambers, to open their homes and find creative ways to house struggling community members.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Two town candidates missed primary day. They were not at election headquarters when results came in. While their peers knocked on doors making last minute campaign promises to help ease the tight rental market, town council candidate Jessica Sell Chambers and mayoral hopeful Pete Muldoon solved the housing crisis—for one family, for now.

The Garcia family was this close to moving back to Mexico. “Back” is a funny word. The boys—Ventura and Dominic—were born in Jackson; they’ve never seen the land their mother is from. The Garcias’ breadwinner had already been deported. The dog was shipped away as well. Noemi, a single mom now, was working overtime at Smith’s to make enough to send her kids off until she could find housing.

“If I have to send my boys away from me I don’t know if I can keep doing this,” Noemi told a guardian angel named Wren Fialka.

But Fialka thinks Garcia is the heavenly one. “This woman never complains. She’s an angel,” she said.

Charitable cherub

Fialka got involved with the Garcias by doing what she does most. The massage therapist has felt compelled in recent years to provide aid and comfort to homeless populations around the world. It began in San Francisco in December 2014.

“When I travel to cities I spend a lot of time with the homeless. I just have a lot of respect and love for them. There are a lot of really good people out there,” she said.

Fialka found her heart in San Francisco. As Ferguson protests further divided the community there and across the country, Fialka took special notice of a segment that is continually isolated and ignored. She took the time to get involved and take action. She listened. She hugged. Before she left, Fialka and an SF-based friend put together 50 care packages for people living on the street there, and the Spread the Love Commission was born.

“There is something really sick about the way our society is right now,” she said. “Our country is broken. Spread the Love is about curing our apathy because you feel like you can’t do anything. We can all do something. If we stop acting like a family, we stop acting like a tribe. We are not a bunch of strangers just walking around the planet. We are a family. We really did come from the same place and we will all go back there.”

Fialka’s mission work has led her to assist the homeless in Greece, Peru, and Mexico. She’s made regular visits and care bag distributions in Denver and Salt Lake. The work has been gratifying for Fialka; life transforming, in fact. She says her faith in humanity has been restored.

“It’s in our nature to help one another. People forget about that and they don’t even know why they walk around feeling depressed,” Fialka said. “I was so, so depressed for years because I never felt like I could do enough. Once I figured out what I could do, it saved my life.”

Unrest at home

This past spring, Fialka found some dire situations right in her hometown. Hurt and need in Jackson Hole were reaching emergency levels, so in April Fialka visited the Community Resource and Latino centers to ask how she could help.

“Give me just one family,” she told Carmina Oaks. “Help me make a difference.” In the spring Fialka started the locally focused HUG, Humans United in Giving, to help struggling people find homes in the valley.

When Oaks learned the Garcias were on the brink of homelessness, facing eviction from the Virginian Apartments at the end of August, the caseworker called Fialka. “I’ve got your family,” she said.

Fialka met the Garcias and immediately fell in love with them. “It’s hard not to,” she said. Reaching out to her friends and volunteers through social media by soliciting several local businesses, Fialka was able to acquire services, supplies and cash donations that were the most critical to get the family through the spring.

By summer, with the help of Francine Bartlett (Medicine Wheel Wellness) and Carmina Oaks (One 22), Fialka organized a small lemonade stand with the Perez family to raise awareness and donations at Phil Baux park each Tuesday.

Political action committee

That’s when Chambers and Muldoon got involved. It started when Chambers and her husband Reed noticed a photo of a young boy, Elliott Sanchez, on the Shelter JH Facebook page. His family was living in a trailer near Lift, one step away from losing even that.

“‘Look who is in need,’ I told Reed when I saw the photo,” Chambers said. “It was one of my husband’s third grade students when he was teaching at Colter.”

Chambers said she will never forget how the Sanchez family was there for her when she first arrived in Jackson. Her little brother Luke, who Chambers has legal custody of since the death of both their parents, started playing hockey but Chambers couldn’t afford the gear. The Sanchezes oldest daughter, Emily, was also in a youth hockey program so the family graciously offered to give Luke her stuff when she outgrew it.

“They were there for us when we got here,” Chambers said.

Inspired by the Sanchezes, the couple decided then and there they would get the basement of their new house ready for a tenant. “We bought this house last year with insurance money from my mom’s death. I have this large house in Jackson when there is a housing emergency; it seemed like a no-brainer. It seems very much like something my parents would do. I understand how life can change… quickly. We couldn’t have made it ourselves without the support of other people.”

As the Chamberses contemplated the daunting task of remodeling their basement, fate stepped in again. At a recent campaign meet-and-greet, Chambers overheard Muldoon talking on the phone with Erickson about the Garcia family’s situation.

“I just said, ‘Wait, Pete, my husband and I were just talking about this. We have this whole downstairs of our house that we are trying to turn into a little rental for someone,’” Chambers remembered saying.

“You’re kidding?” Muldoon said. He had been working with Fialka and Shelter JH to find the Garcias somewhere to live. “All I did was put them together,” he said. “I was working with Wren and Shelter JH and thought: instead of doing something that is political advocacy, I could actually help a person. Things just kind of went from there.”

A few calls, emails, and social media posts later, and soon a handful of volunteers showed up at the Chambers place. They began painting and installing a floor. They managed to do in a week or two what the Chamberses did not have the money or time to accomplish.

Primary purpose

August 16 was the day they knew for sure they had something for the Garcias. It was primary day for candidates Chambers and Muldoon. They showed the Garcia family their new home that night as poll results trickled in. “It was pretty emotional all around,” Chambers said.

The two political newcomers celebrated their Tuesday victories by rejoicing in one small triumph over the housing emergency in Jackson. PJH

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