A nonprofit social services agency is helping wildfire victims of the Hill and Woolsey fires find comfort and hope by providing useful information for the long-term recovery process.

Lutheran Social Services of Southern California began their housing counseling program in March 2018 to provide case management on an individualized basis. The housing counseling program is qualified through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and is part of the agency’s 50 different programs and services to assist community needs.

Ben Garcia, senior director for the LSSSC housing counseling program, began the service to ensure that displaced fire victims can make the appropriate decision for their housing needs. To date, the LSSSC housing counseling program at the Thousand Oaks location has assisted about 100 people affected by the Hill and Woolsey fires.

”LSSSC’s mission is to embrace, equip and to empower our communities through the power of education,” says Garcia. “Because of this, we strive to be the source of change we wish to see in our communities.”

Garcia says wildfire victims can utilize LSSSC’s services in two different ways. The first is through the free housing counseling department, where a team of five HUD-certified counselors sit with different victims for hour-long sessions, during which they call the lender to inquire about specific fire relief programs available for the area in which the residence burnt down.

“Some lenders were automatically giving clients three months’ forbearance where they wouldn’t have to make three months of payments, or some lenders were offering to help modify and lower their payments,” says Garcia.

Counselors also assist the victims by speaking with their insurance companies.

“The counselor explains what programs the lender is offering and if it does or doesn’t benefit them,” says Garcia. “Basically, any housing needs that would go hand-in-hand with them being victims we would work with.”

Additional counseling sessions are also provided for 30 minutes.

“It depends on their needs,” says Garcia. “You also do not have to be a Lutheran to use our services; you can be of any domination.”

The second service LSSSC provides wildfire victims is through the Disaster Relief Program by offering $50 gift cards to buy groceries, gas or other necessities the person may have. All proceeds were donated through the LSSSC website.

“If it’s a family of four, we’ll offer an additional $50 gift card,” says Garcia.

Megan Hutchinson and her husband, Nick, were referred to LSSSC through Conejo Cares, a Christian church community organization, after Hutchinson’s parents lost their mobile home in Seminole Springs during the Woolsey Fire last November. Megan and Nick, along with their newborn baby boy, River, were living in a rented spare room, while their grandmother lived in the guest house.

“We didn’t have renter’s insurance and all of our possessions were lost,” says Megan. “It’s all out of pocket to replace the items.”

The couple grabbed baby supplies and reptile pets and evacuated at about 10 p.m. the night the fire started. The next day, Megan learned the mobile home had been destroyed.

“I thought it was a preemptive measure [to evacuate], but I had a feeling that the house would not be there,” Megan recalls. “When the Kanan winds picked up, it was the perfect storm for a fire.”

Currently, the Hutchinsons and family members are living together in a rented house in Newbury Park until the property can be rebuilt in Seminole Springs. The family is thankful for the gift card from LSSSC and plans to save money to figure out their next life steps.

“It validates your experience and makes you feel not so lonely in the process,” says Megan.

For more information about Lutheran Social Services of Southern California or to donate to the California Fire Relief Appeal, visit LSSSC.org or call 805.497.6207.