Webster defines hope as the expectation of or belief in fulfillment; trust, reliance. Hope is something we all need, but when life throws us curve balls, hope can be illusive.
Megan Campbell-Smith is a vibrant 17 year-old student at Ventura High School. Recently crowned Miss Ventura County Outstanding Teen, Megan told emcee Kelsey Gerckens, "My hope is to be able to pour into my community in ways I never have before."
When talking with Megan, her face beams with hope, so one would never know all that led up to this exciting achievement. At the age of three, Megan's biological father passed away from complications of a blood transfusion. Later, Megan herself had a very serious illness that required two blood transfusions. Because of what had happened to her father, this was very scary for Megan. To further shake her world, Megan's mom, Colleen, had cancer at one point as well.
Megan's life has not been without blessings. Megan's mom re-married a wonderful man, Henry Smith, who has helped to raise Megan. He and Colleen have provided a home that is founded on the love of Jesus. In fact, in the fall of 2017, Henry baptized Megan and Colleen at Ventura Missionary Church's beach baptism. It was a day brimming with layers of meaning, one that the family still holds dear.
Just a few months after this day of celebration, life would take another tragic turn. On December 4, then 15 year-old Megan, went to school as usual. That evening, a friend texted to say that Santa Paula was on fire. The Smith's lived on family property in Wheeler Canyon, between Santa Paula and Ventura. Megan, who has struggled with anxiety at times, found it interesting that when the fire moved closer to their property and chaos erupted, she remained calm. Henry was at work, and Megan's cousin was shouting for Megan and Colleen to grab some belongings and leave. Megan went to her closet with a backpack and filled it with things that she thought at the time would be good to take. Colleen had seen fires near their land before, and nothing had ever happened, so she figured this fire would be diverted as well. But, Megan believed in her heart that their home wouldn't survive the fire. She took a video of her room so she could remember what it looked like. Even though Colleen was assuming they’d be back soon, she decided to grab a few photos off the wall and a change of clothes. Henry came home from work and began helping other family members try to protect the three homes on the land, using their own water truck and fire hoses. Colleen and Megan heeded the advice of family and left. As they were going out of the driveway at the ranch, they encountered a 50-foot wall of flames. Had they left five minutes later, they would not have been able to get through.
Colleen and Megan were able to make it to a friend’s home in Ventura while Henry stayed behind. 30-40 minutes later, a fireman from the strike team told Henry that the embers of the fire had gotten under the Smith house, and it was too late to save it. They would need to focus on the other two homes on the property. Those homes were saved, but Henry was forced to make one of the most difficult phone calls of life – to tell his own family that their home was gone.
The Smith family tried to sleep that night, finally drifting off about 2:00 am, only to be jolted awake at 4:30 am with the news that the fire was now on the street where they were sleeping. Evacuating once again, it hit Colleen for the first time that they were literally homeless. They decided to drive back toward Santa Paula since the fire had traveled to Ventura. At one point, they just parked on the side of Briggs Road, and tried to figure out where to go.
After the fire, when the family first returned to where their home had been, nothing was left, except a cross that had hung on their wall. The house had previously been Colleen’s grandmother’s home, and now generations of memories were no longer tangible.
As the weeks unfolded, God provided: places to stay, gifts, encouragements from friends, and so much more. When Christmas arrived a few weeks following the fire, the Smith’s were staying in their 5th wheel trailer on some friend’s property. Someone gave them a Christmas tree and the Smith’s literally cut it in half so that it would fit into the RV.
The next two years was a season mixed with blessings and struggles. The family of three each had their moments of feeling the weight of their loss, as well as times of surrendered trust in God. Megan says the teachers were understanding when those impacted by the fire first returned to class, but by the next school year, Megan was still overwhelmed by what had happened, and her grades began to slip. She says she was unmotivated and had significant anxiety. It was tough.
Colleen hit a rough patch two weeks after the fire when she got pneumonia, and Megan was quick to tell her mom, “God’s got this!” Colleen said she held onto those words of truth from her daughter on many occasions after that.
The Smith’s have learned a lot from their experience. Colleen says, “God taught us not to be so materialistic. 95% of what we lost was just stuff. The important thing was we got out with each other.”
Henry has this vivid image in his head of God looking down on a topographical map that represents our lives. God guides people in and out of different places. There are mountains and valleys, canyons and desserts, curving rivers, beautiful lakes and green meadows. We can’t see what’s around the corner, but from God’s perspective, the way the map plays out is beautiful.
Megan says she is also amazed by God’s hand in their story. When they began attending Ventura Missionary Church, she wasn’t sure why God led them there. But when the fire invaded their lives, there were so many connections through Ventura Missionary that God orchestrated in amazing ways to encourage and provide for them.
It’s been two years since the Thomas Fire. Megan is not only an accomplished young woman, she lives and shares the transforming love of Jesus. When the entire town of Paradise was burned, she partnered with fellow cheerleaders in Ventura to provide new uniforms and equipment for the Paradise cheerleaders. She has volunteered at “A Night to Remember,” a prom night for students with special needs, and she coordinated a similar event at her own high school. These are just a few examples of how Megan has blessed people in her community and beyond. She says that people gave so much to them in their time of need, she wants to give back.
Megan also serves at Ventura Missionary Church. She has facilitated girls groups in KidZone and Middle School. Currently Megan is on the worship team for the Middle School youth group. She says that one of the songs they sing particularly ministered to her through the dark times of processing their loss. The chorus declares, “Jesus, You make the darkness tremble.”
Henry says, he wants everyone to see God in them, and he proudly says, “Megan is one of God’s chief lights.” When you visit the home where the Smith’s are residing today, you will see that cross they found in the rubble of the fire. They chose not to clean it up and to hang it in the entrance hallway. Henry says, “It serves as a reminder that God is always with us. It’s a symbol of God’s presence in the middle of the fire.” Megan was right all along, “God’s got this!” Hope can be found in any situation when you rely on and trust the One who has you in the palm of His hand. No matter what, everyone can have hope for Christmas.