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A Beacon of Light

Residents of water-logged Vernonia find a new appreciation of the little things in life, such as Goodwill Industries' Christmas store that offered donated decorations and Christmas trees

In the midst of the overwhelming task of rebuilding their lives, displaced Vernonia residents were treated to a tiny beacon of light which helped lead them through the muck and mire of the past few weeks.

For five days last week, a once-empty building in the center of town was stocked with brightly colored Christmas ornaments and lights, angel toppers, candles, holiday-themed dishes and linens, even a tiny, lighted revolving Christmas tree. Stacked on a heaping pile in front of the building were hundreds of freshly cut pine and noble fir trees, donated by local tree farmers and snuggly wrapped for immediate transport to temporary homes for Christmas.

A special project of Goodwill Industries, the Vernonia Christmas Store opened for five days last week for the sole purpose of helping the residents affected by the flood experience some degree of normalcy during the tumultuous time that is anything but normal. 'Each person gets a $25 gift certificate good at any Goodwill store,' said Jim Thiess, deputy director of special projects for Goodwill Industries in Portland. 'Then, we give them a bag and they can pick anything off the shelves. They can fill it 'till it breaks.'

Vernonia resident Tori Fallau took advantage of the store while on her way to work, although she was selective about what she took. Fallau, her husband, and two children are living in the small family room of a home owned by Caroline Velasco, a friend from her church. Fallau said there is very little room for anything but the bare necessities. Her visit to the store was to find gifts.

Fallau and her family lived in a townhouse in a 26-unit complex on California Avenue when the floods came. They didn't have much time to get out. 'When I waded through water up to my waist with my kids, I asked her (Velasco), 'How much do you love me?'' Velasco welcomed the Fallaus with open arms. Fallau's husband, who works in Portland, was unable to get back to town until the next evening. 'He was panicked,' said Fallau.

The Christmas items in the store were all donated and in almost-new condition. 'It came from a myriad of people,' said Thiess, who manned the store for the full five days. The only requirement for displaced residents was they had to be registered with FEMA. 'If they haven't gotten on the list, we send them to the community center to register,' said Thiess.

But, in spite of her family of four being crammed into one room for the next four to six weeks while they wait for cabinetry, appliances and flooring to be replaced in their townhouse, Fallau says they will bounce back. 'The kids are safe. We're high and dry, we have a comfortable place to stay and we're fed.'

As in any small town, occasionally things get stirred up that can sometimes cause rifts in even the strongest communities. 'Our community was going through some issues that were separating families,' said Fallau. 'Now, everybody's in the same boat. It's a blessing. It's sad to say, but it added strength to our community. People are much easier to satisfy now. A warm bed, a hot meal and people are happy.'