Before she finished evacuating her home in downtown Louisville as the Marshall Fire began to rage through southern Boulder County, Serena Overson was already focused on helping others. With her kid and cats in tow on their way to safety at a friend’s house in Erie, the 38-year-old was on the phone arranging hotels and transportation for other evacuees whose lives would be changed forever by the historic destruction.

Overson kept at it for the next three days  — assessing needs, providing updates and connecting people with support resources — until she and her family were able to return home.

“I think I got maybe 45 minutes of sleep each day because I was responding to people nonstop,” she said.  

As the toll of the Dec. 30 disaster came into view, it was clear the need was like nothing the community had seen. More than 1,000 homes were destroyed, totaling more than $1 billion in insured losses. The pets, property and cherished memories of thousands were gone forever. Many of those whose houses were spared returned home to smoke and wind damage, as confusion swirled around insurance and relief benefits.

It was, in other words, exactly the kind of moment Overson was born for. When she was a kid growing up on the East Coast, she would frequently come home missing articles of clothing she had been wearing when she left the house that morning.

“My mom would be like, ‘Where are your clothes?’ But there was someone else who needed it,” she said. “If I can get by without it, then I’m going to give it to somebody else. That’s always been my nature.”

Serena Overson, 38, founder of an online network of Boulder County volunteers, sets up the new free store for Marshall Fire victims at The Christopher Plaza at 1075 E. South Boulder Rd., Unit 140, in Louisville. The store’s grand opening is Sunday from 12 to 7. Shopping is by appointment. Credit: Melissa Bailey

Community of care

Overson’s empathy found a natural expression in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when she launched a Facebook group called Lending a Hand, designed as an online support system for people in need. Now boasting more than 4,000 individual members, the group started as a small network of Boulder County residents who wanted to lighten the burden of their neighbors by helping them find housing, pay bills, look for work and more through the donation of their time, cash and talents.

This mission of general care turned out to be the perfect fit for meeting the community’s vast and varied needs after the Marshall Fire — and people were eager to help. Group membership ballooned dramatically after the Dec. 30 disaster, with more than a thousand new members joining up in the immediate aftermath.

“We usually struggled for volunteers, but there was an outpouring after the fire,” said Louisville resident Neha Shanbhag, who has been involved as a Lending a Hand volunteer since its early days of pandemic relief.

Among the group’s most significant post-fire projects was the creation of the Marshall Fire Free Store at Lionsgate Event Center in Louisville, a retail space where victims can access everything from donated clothing and hygiene products to laptops, make-up and more at no cost. Through a flurry of donations, including many items purchased by Overson herself, the store became a lifeline for people trying to put the pieces of their lives back together after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

In addition to providing essential items and creature comforts, the store also included self-care features like massage therapy and spa services.

“The struggles these people have to go through to build their life back up from scratch is very stressful,” Shanbhag said. “Serena really thought outside the box to try and provide some relaxation for them. It never came to my mind, but it came to her mind.”

After operating at Lionsgate for more than a month, the free store is reopening on Sunday in its new location at the Christopher Plaza shopping center in Louisville at 1075 E. South Boulder Rd., where Overson says she and her volunteers will continue providing the same compassionate service for the people who need it.

“I’m truly blessed for this opportunity, to be honest. And I’m determined to keep going until nobody needs my help anymore,” she said. “But people are always going to need help. So even after the Marshall Fire recovery, I’m going to be here for my community.”

The new Marshall Fire Free Store opens Sunday, Feb. 20, 12–7 p.m. Shopping is by appointment only. For more information, visit Lending a Hand on Facebook.

Archived work by Jezy Grazy for Boulder Reporting Lab.