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Team brings comfort to Waldo Canyon fire displaced families

Thea Wasche (center), 50th Force Support Squadron deputy commander, and her therapy golden retriever, Lacey, pose for a photo with Jonathan (left) and Isaiah June 29 at an evacuation shelter in Cheyenne Mountain High School. Wasche and Lacey provide comfort to families who were displaced by the Waldo Canyon fire, which began June 23. On June 26, the fire grew to approximately 17,800 acres, destroyed 346 homes and displaced more than 30,000 people. (American Red Cross photo/Dan Halyburton)

By Staff Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes

50th Space Wing Public Affairs

Cindy Black didn’t even get to go home.

It was June 25; the fire had been raging in Waldo Canyon since June 23. It turned for the worse the following day. On June 26, the fire grew to approximately 17,800 acres, destroyed 346 homes and displaced more than 30,000 people.

Red Cross set up evacuation shelters for people at various locations in Colorado Springs, one of which is Cheyenne Mountain High School, which is where Black and her family sought shelter.

“I have never been to a place or in a situation like this,” she said.

It is a situation where everyone was a stranger, but she got to know more people. The fire seemed to bring people closer. People helped each other; the community became a big family. The shelter became her family’s home.

“They took care of me and my kids,” Black said.

Community members stocked the shelter with food, blankets, clothes, toys, toiletries and more trying to provide a little comfort.

It is this comfort that Thea Wasche, 50th Force Support Squadron deputy commander, and her therapy golden retriever, Lacey, worked to provide at the shelter. How they do it is simple: Wasche and Lacey walk around the shelter, visit with people, talk to them and let them pet the canine.

“It is very comforting,” Black said. “Look at her. She is so happy. She puts a smile on people’s faces.”

The duo volunteered every night and weekend through the Red Cross at the shelter since the Waldo Canyon fire started. To start, Wasche helped set up the shelter and stock food. During the first day of evacuation, more than 250 people came to Cheyenne Mountain High School.

“We saw immediately that they were going to be in traumatic situations,” Wasche said. “When you are removed from your home, you don’t know what’s going on; you may not know where your family is. It’s very stressful and traumatic.”

The team provided comfort just by being there. People are drawn to the golden retriever. Children, especially, love to play with Lacey.

“Many children will open up to Lacey and talk to her.” Wasche said. “They tell us their stories.”

Lacey needs no introductions. People just flock to her. When Wasche and Lacey make their rounds, everybody just wants to be with the dog.

“They thank us repeatedly,” Wasche said. “I always feel bad because they are the ones who are suffering and have left their homes. Lacey is an overwhelming support there.”

Prior to the fire, Wasche and Lacey had been volunteering at Evans Army Community Hospital through their Wounded Warrior Program, interacting with post-traumatic stress syndrome patients, various family member issues and prosthetic replacement and learning how to work with them. In addition, the team also visits nursing homes or the Ronald McDonald House. People can also request therapy dogs through the Red Cross. This time around, they didn’t need to.

“Therapy dogs are not for everybody,” Wasche said. “For most, it helps them bring a sense of normalcy. It is therapeutic just to pet a dog.”

Lacey brought that sense of joy for Christa Griffin, 11. Since meeting Lacey June 26 at the shelter, Christa has seen her every day. Christa plays with Lacey and does tricks with her.

“I was really happy,” Christa said. “I really wanted to borrow Lacey because she is adorable. Lacey is one of the best dogs I’ve ever seen.”

For Black, Lacey is a representation of what the whole community has given to her and her family, and how they provided comfort and hope.

“She gives me the feeling of being loved,” Black said. “She has no idea of what I was going through and she is just there. She just helps us.”

As of July 2, the Waldo Canyon fire is 70 percent contained and some evacuation orders have been lifted, with 3,000 residents still waiting to return home. For members still looking to provide comfort, visit www.pparc.org.

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