Month: April 2017

California CHD: Helping to Rebuild Harbin, and People’s Lives

If you haven’t been here recently, it might be hard to actually imagine. But 95% of Harbin’s buildings, and the majority of its infrastructure systems, as well as its forests, gardens, and landscaping, were destroyed by the Valley Fire. We immediately closed Harbin to guests and lost all operating income; and most of our community of resident and locally hired workers lost their homes, posse ssions, jobs, and their ongoing connections to each other and the vast, multi-faceted organization we call Harbin.


How do you come back from something like that? As individuals and as an organization, how do you begin to recover and even think about moving forward amidst such traumatic devastation?


20161109_112523CHDFor Harbin and for many of our employees, the California Human Development (CHD) organization has been a lifeline. CHD is one of California’s leading 501(c)(3) organizations, serving residents of 31 California counties. Its mission is to help end cycles of poverty by providing primary support programs, training, and advocacy for: farmworker services and workforce development, affordable housing, disability services, energy efficiency, treatment and recovery, and community services – including disaster relief. It is in this last capacity that CHD, with the help of The Cooperativa de Campesina de California, first came to Lake County after the Valley Fire, and how CHD and Harbin connected.



With no operating income and much of its workforce dispersed, Harbin faced the daunting physical and budgetary challenges of figuring out how to clear thousands of dead trees and other fire debris expeditiously from its extensive acreage. CHD stepped forward with a solution: a program offering a good wage to those made unemployed by the fire and willing to do hard work.


For both Harbin and many of its people, the program has been a tremendous success. Between the spring of 2016, when it began, and the end of this year, when it will end, this CHD program will have assigned more than 60 workers to Harbin, and collectively paid them an estimated $1.4 million. As of this writing, Harbin has 25 active CHD participants in the program, or 45% of Harbin’s overall workforce. These workers are not only clearing dead trees and removing debris, which wouldn’t have happened nearly as quickly without this program; they are also providing needed support to the rebuild teams throughout Harbin, making it possible for all these departments to complete their work more quickly.


20160921_094245HEADER-CHDAbout half of these CHD workers have had no previous connection to Harbin. Many of them have been unemployed for long periods of time, including some with limited job skills and work experience. For these people, the CHD program has offered the opportunity for a welcome leg up, with good-paying work, specific job-skills training, and exposure to the same basic workplace trainings that Harbin gives to all its employees (safety and communications). The other half of Harbin’s CHD workers are “Harbin people” who were working here before the fire – and we caught up with a few of them to get their impressions of the CHD program.


Crystal Theoret had been a Harbin resident for six years before the fire. If you visited Harbin during that time, you might have admired her classic flower arrangements at the Warm Pool, or enjoyed her prepared foods and treats at the Market, or relaxed on a massage table under her skilled and gentle hands. Crystal barely escaped the fire in her van – with nothing but her husband, their two-year-old daughter, three cats, and the clothes on their backs; they lost their home, Harbin, and everything else. Initially, they spent some time at the Ananda community; then they wandered, transient, in an RV, parking at several different people’s houses. But nowhere felt like it was where they wanted for their home. “My heart always wanted to come back to Middletown,” she explained. So when CHD’s Harbin program came along, Crystal jumped at the opportunity to return here and participate.


“It felt like my second chance,” she explained. “Because I was so damaged with PTSD from all this loss, filling out job applications and putting myself out there was so hard. But having the chance to come back through CHD and work on the Harbin land really helped.” Crystal worked for six months with several others in the Harbin garden, helping to clean up, maintain, and hand-water virtually the only green area of mainside that survived the fire. “It was an amazing blessing to be on that land again, and help clean it up and guard it. It reconnected me to the community and brought integration – and the hard physical work I was doing felt like giving back.” While she was working in the garden, Crystal was excited to read about and apply for a full-time job in Harbin’s Human Resources department. She got that job, transitioned from CHD back to the Harbin payroll, and as a Harbin employee again became eligible to move into one of Harbin’s few-surviving resident houses; and that’s where she and her family are living now. In all, she said, “The CHD program was a gift.”


mudMichael Palmer began working at Harbin a few months before the fire, working on the roads crew with heavy equipment. He’s a big, strong guy with gentle eyes, who confides with just a hint of a smile that, “I come across as rougher than I really am.” When the fire came, he and his wife, Nikki (who had been working in Harbin’s Reception department and is now working in Security) and their two high-school-aged children were living in nearby Cobb, where the fire began; fortunately, their house was spared. But Mike lost his Harbin job, and had trouble finding ongoing work at a sustainable wage. The CHD program, he said, gave him both an opportunity to provide for his family, and to come back to Harbin sooner (“I really like working here”). He signed on to the program to do debris cleanup; and because he had specific training and experience, he was offered full-time work when his CHD program ended. Today Mike is Manager of Harbin’s Roads department, supervising a crew of four CHD employees. Their job is to keep the culverts flowing and the roads clear so that workers from all our other departments can get safely in an out – a sometimes daunting task with all the rain and mudslides we’ve had this season. They’re also helping move fire debris to the burn piles right now, before the burn season ends May 1.


As a supervisor of a CHD crew, Mike has seen first-hand multiple benefits of the program. “It’s a good program for people who haven’t had work for a while, or are just starting out. Some of the people they hired were first-time kids who never had a job before. We’ve been able to teach them what to do on a job site – which they wouldn’t have learned otherwise, and will help them when they apply for other jobs after their program ends.” He also pointed out that the program has helped accelerate Harbin’s rebuild. “We wouldn’t be nearly as far along if we didn’t have CHD. With the amount of personnel they gave us, in terms of cleanup and the rebuild, it’s really been helping.”


Ken Gonzales, who had been working in Harbin’s Landscaping and Gardening departments for seven years, lost everything in the fire. “Everything,” he emphasized. “A house, three cars, 66 years of stuff.” For him, CHD was the road back into working and community: “Otherwise I’d probably just be sitting in a chair, rocking.” Ken was the very first Harbin CHD employee, and as such, he pointed out, was able to make life easier for everyone who followed by deftly handling all the hours of initial CHD paperwork. But it was worth it, he said. “I have purpose in my life, and a reason to get up. This program has been a complete benefit in terms of this community: I still feel like I’m a part of it.” Ken’s job is to help restore the garden, and he happily reports that, “It’s starting to look pretty darn good!”


Ken definitely plans to continue to work at Harbin and rebuild his Middletown home. “I just put in plans to the Building department last Friday,” he told us. And when asked if he had anything else to share about the CHD program, he hastened to offer, “I have to thank Governor Brown, who I think of as my employer, for helping the people of Harbin, Middletown, Lake County – for helping the whole area rebuild. CHD is a very important program. It’s a win-win, no doubt. This is what government should be doing all over the country: making roads, not walls.”


And for Harbin, making inroads is exactly what CHD has been doing. Their programs have given opportunities at Harbin to people who haven’t had them before; they have helped Harbin employees and residents get back on their feet and return to our community; and they have helped our land and our entire organization to recoup, recover, and renew. We literally could not have so quickly done everything we have, without CHD’s timely and generous support. For that, and so much more, we are deeply grateful.

Meet Harbin’s Managers

Sajjad Mahmud: out of retirement, and into the fire

On September 11, 2015, Sajjad Mahmud had been enjoying a peaceful, contemplative retirement for eight months. The next day, as fire consumed his home and most of the resort he had been so instrumental in building, Sajjad went back to work. And he has been working every day since.


Sajjad Mahmud

Sajjad’s Harbin tenure began in 1981, following a series of Buddhist meditation retreats. He had been looking for a home where he could live his practice, and thought Harbin offered the right fit. Sajjad worked for a year in the garden; then he moved into building and construction, where he worked for the next 12 years, gaining broad and extensive practical experience. Then, in 1994, Ishvara asked him to become a Managing Director, responsible for construction and Harbin’s finances. Sajjad filled these roles for the next 20 years – guiding Harbin through a period of intense growth – until his retirement in 2014. “At that time, I really felt I had stopped for good,“ Sajjad recalled. “But the fire was such a devastating and catastrophic event; and given that I had so much experience with Harbin’s construction and finances, I felt strongly that I had to come back and help out.”


Sajjad comes across as a calm and classy man, radiating a quiet assuredness. Often, as I asked him questions, he paused and gave thoughtful, detailed answers.


“What I’d like everyone to know about the fire,” he told me, “is the level of destruction, and the complexity of the rebuilding process. Part of Harbin was built 80-90 years ago, but was redone or built piece by piece, over the last 40+ years. We lost 95% of those buildings, and most of the supporting infrastructure as well. All of that was destroyed (though the pools and springs were spared, kind of). So not only did we have to clean up and clear away all the fire debris and dead biomass, we also faced the need to rebuild virtually everything entirely from scratch. And doing that – especially the planning, permitting, and approvals processes – has been significantly more complex and time consuming than it was in the past.


“There are new County, State, and Federal building, accessibility, fire, and environmental codes to comply with,” Sajjad explained. “And our overall plan as a whole, as well as every individual building, structure and system, must be conceptualized, designed, engineered in multiple ways, submitted to the appropriate agencies, reviewed, revised, approved… and only then can they be constructed, inspected, and permitted. It is a long process with many disparate parts to coordinate. And all of it has been significantly complicated by the fact that our mainside is quite a steep and hilly area, which is a factor for ADA compliance. And then there have been the rains. At this point, most of our rebuild has been happening outside; and to work outside, excavate, contour the land, and build, you need a reasonable amount of dryness. We haven’t had much of that. So it has all taken a lot more time and been a lot more complex than I had expected.”


I asked Sajjad if he enjoyed that kind of complexity. “I have in the past,” he said, “when I was living my life and any construction project was just one part of it.” He paused, allowing some of his tiredness to show. “But now the focus is much more acute: I’m not thinking about anything other than this rebuild. The interest is in getting Harbin up and running as quickly as possible. And I’m finding that all the complexity is a challenge.”


Like so many Harbin residents, Sajjad lost not only Harbin in the fire, but his personal dwelling burned to the ground as well. Losing home and community are traumatic psychological events in anyone’s life, and Sajjad confided that he hadn’t yet had a time to consciously process that and work through it. “I haven’t had that luxury.” He said he wondered how “this whole thing” is processing out for himself, and hopes it’s getting done on a more subconscious level. “Time will tell,” he said.


As for the other Harbin residents and locals who lost so much in the fire, he clearly has compassion for them – perhaps even more than he allows for himself. “It’s so difficult, “ he described, “I feel for everybody. Overnight, so many people’s lives were disrupted; and the basic structures that kept us together are gone. I hope people have adjusted to the best of their ability. But really, so much has changed. It’s devastating.”


Time, though, and hard work, has certainly healed some things. Sajjad described that “all the evidence of the fire at Harbin has been pretty much removed. Immediately after the fire it was terrible, with burned trees all around, and the debris. We went through a lot, getting rid of it, and then beginning to rebuild. But if you go to Harbin now, it’s so much better.”


And what of Sajjad’s postponed retirement? “My plan, when I retired in 2014, was to be more in a meditative space. Not to follow any hardcore ideology, or dogma; but informally, to live a here-and-now life. I needed to decompress after those 21 years of very intense Harbin management experience. I wanted to smell the flowers and take walks.” And after the added intensity and stresses of the fire and rebuild, with Phase 1 of Harbin’s reopening now scheduled for October: had the time come for Sajjad Mahmud to step back once again, and stroll the garden path?


“I don’t know,” he smiled. “I’m taking it one day at a time.”



Julie Adams


Julie Adams has been a key thread in Harbin’s fabric for more than 30 years. And no one is more surprised than her.


When she first came to Harbin in 1984, something unexpected (but not uncommon) happened: she fell in love with a Harbin resident. His name was Pete, and like Julie’s then-recently-deceased husband, it turned out Pete was dying. Unlike her husband, who had been in a hospital bed where she couldn’t give him the tender, gentle care she knew he longed for, Pete was here in this community. And he, and the community, welcomed Julie and her big hurting heart into their lives. For weeks, Julie mostly just sat with Pete and the other community members who loved him.


When Pete died on Valentine’s day (“heart consciousness day”) she had planned to go back to her job teaching in Colorado. But she had been profoundly affected both by her experiences with Pete, and by the other friendships she had found in this remarkable community. And after some time training with hospice and integrating her experiences, Julie found herself back at Harbin.


She started sweeping Stonefront, painting signs, driving residents to the local grocery store in town, Hardester’s, and on errands, and just generally helping out. She still expected to return to teaching. Until one day Ishvara, who had come to know and appreciate Julie during their time being together with Pete, offered her the job of a “Managing Director”. She didn’t have a clue what that actually meant. But in the ensuing 30 years, she has learned.


JulieAdamsToday, Julie’s primary responsibilities are aesthetic and administrative. Julie is an artist, and it is her whimsical eye for color, form, and texture that gave Harbin its distinctive style as it grew – and that will shape Harbin’s appearance as it grows again. “The inspiration will be the touchstone structures that people loved from our past, like the gazebo and the gate, as well as the Arts & Crafts designs from around 1910,” she says. “Modest structures, with real wood, stone, and glass. Warm, inviting. Nothing grandiose.” For Phase 1, she’s especially looking forward to the roofs planned for the hot pool and sauna: standing seam copper that will weather to a soft verdigris.


As for her administrative duties, Julie sighs and takes a long pause. “When I first got here, Harbin was basic. People here had very little, and were living in very rustic conditions. We as managers had to figure out from scratch how to make enough money to give our people a better standard of living – and over the years, we have been working continually to do that.” She also cites the interpersonal challenges of being a manager. “I had no idea how hard it would be. It’s different being a manager – a different role, a different relationship with people, and them with you.” Julie hopes that she has matured into her manager’s role, become wiser, and mellowed a bit with time and age.


She also hopes to retire from that role once the rebuild is complete. Her plan is to move back onto the property, “into a tiny house that I get to design!”, she giggles, “and just be like every other Harbin resident. Enjoying the smell of wet grass, the pools, and that hive-like hum of everyday life on mainside. That’s what I miss the most.”



Call 707-987-2477

Stay Connected

Subscribe to our Newsletter