Un-cogged: Corporate Citizenship During the 2018 Camp Fire

Nivi Achanta
7 min readJan 22, 2019

November 26, 2018 — Volunteer Day

Everything smells like bleach. It’s always given me a bit of a headache, but here, it’s a good thing. Bleach means excellent sanitation. It means patient safety, disease containment, and another uneventful daily inspection by the California Department of Public Health.

We’re beginning Day 6 of our Camp Fire Disaster Recovery Initiative in Chico, CA. Four members of my team, including myself, are here for our first volunteer shift at East Ave Clinic. This place is a makeshift shelter providing medical services to the displaced residents of what used to be Paradise.

It’s been 18 days since California’s most devastating fire decimated the small town of Paradise. The day of the Camp Fire, East Avenue Church (to be transformed, cleverly, into “East Ave Clinic”) set up 200 cots with bedding and basic necessities. The church community immediately opened their doors and hearts to evacuees.

The command center at East Avenue Church, five days after the fire.

Each evacuee residing at the clinic has an orange badge with their picture, and below it, the word “GUEST”. Here, dignity is a fundamental value.

We start our day at the hospitality station. We’re by a desk covered in nitrile gloves, N95 dust masks, and hand sanitizer. It’s right by the entrance of the clinic. Joe and I are in charge of making sure everyone who comes in is taken care of — we give them hand sanitizer, ask how they’re doing, and tell them to let us know if they need any items. On our left is a tall shelf fully stacked with every toiletry-related thing you can think of: toothbrushes and toothpaste, combs, towels, deodorant, chapstick, even basic clothing items like socks and slippers.

The guests are hesitant to take more than what they need, although East Ave Clinic has a surplus of donations. On our second hour of our shift, it’s all hands on deck distributing these donations. That’s where we see the towering piles of clothes, organized by age, gender, and size. This is a microcosm of human good, and it’s almost numbing to see.

Joe helping out at one of the many clothing supply areas at East Ave Clinic.

Paradise evacuees (regardless of whether they’re staying at the clinic) come to us and reluctantly explain what they need. We push them a little harder — do you have any pets? How old are your children? Where are you staying?

As they warm up to us, they understand that this is a safe space. There is no judgment, no shame, in getting the things you need in this rough time of transition. Slowly but surely, we help them load their cars with a lot more than they ask for — dog treats, blankets, fuzzy socks, fruit snacks — stuff that they felt didn’t belong on their list.

It dawns on me that Paradise hasn’t lost everything. Homes and childhood photos are suspended in the ash, but their community is stronger than ever. In this time of crisis and disaster, nurses and security staff (all volunteers) are working around the clock. Volunteers are planning for Thanksgiving and Christmas at the shelter. They’re spreading cheer, optimism, and the feeling that soon, everything will be okay. East Ave Clinic is a symbol of resilience.

We spend the last two hours of our shift preparing and serving dinner. Each guest is guaranteed three hot meals a day. It’s good stuff, too — today is taco night. We warm the tortillas and set out the utensils. I’m in charge of the salad and the pie (which looks delicious. There’s pecan AND apple pie, as well as an assortment of cookies).

After all the food is heated and ready to go, we take it to the main part of the clinic and set it up assembly-line style. It’s the four of us and a young man from the National Guard. We all have gloves and serving spoons. Taco night is in full swing.

The Accenture team serves dinner to the guests.

The guests are animated as they pass through our food station. They make jokes about getting fat for the holidays and express their excitement at the pecan pie. This feels like as much as a home as it possibly can. When my team and I learned that the median age of shelter residents was 70 and that many guests were far below the poverty line and ridden with health problems, we weren’t expecting to step into a place of light and community. We weren’t expecting to see so much comfort, hope, and wholesomeness in the face of destruction.

This is the most powerful project experience I think I’ll ever have.

Safety first! We always have our masks on when we go up to Chico — sometimes, even indoors.

November 13, 2018 — The Beginning

I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how. My partner had lost his home five days prior. His brother, Jesse, was even caught in the flames — he managed to escape, but the story is chilling. We were on the phone with him when the line cut out.

Jesse has a video he’s taken from his car. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.

Jesse took this from his car while he was trying to escape the flames.

I’m sitting on the 35th floor of the Salesforce tower, frustrated at my relative cushy-ness. I’m between projects right now. It’s nearing the holidays, so there are a considerable amount of people “on the bench” (which just means you’re not on a project), and all I can think about is how there are a bunch of consultants with a lot of bandwidth sitting in a San Francisco skyscraper while a whole town 3 hours north has been decimated. There has to be something Accenture could do.

I write a proposal to take a team of eight consultants to East Ave Clinic for a few weeks to understand the building blocks to scalable, community-powered disaster recovery, and I send it to everyone I know. I’m not very hopeful — I started my career only a little over a year ago and most of the people I’ve emailed have never met me before. And they’re the busiest people in the company. Also, this disaster recovery project in Chico isn’t going to make us any money…

I’m on my way back home from dinner, and there are two missed calls on my phone. (None of them are from my mom, which is unexpected.)

I call back. It’s a managing director from the West Region Leadership team. He says they received my proposal, and I could start immediately.

Immediately???

Before noon the next day, seven other people enthusiastically sign on. We leave San Francisco at 6:00 AM the following morning, and I’m somehow the leader of an eight-person team, stumbling through the conception and implementation of my very own project.

The next three weeks are a wild ride.

The Camp Fire Disaster Recovery Initiative team. Top (from left to right): Joseph Getz, Sydney Munson, Jeanette Wang, Aristotle Torio, Joshua Forges; bottom: Emily Zeisler, Natalia Soler, Nivi Achanta

January 8, 2019 — Two Months Later

It’s been two months since the Camp Fire hit.

I’m back at the Salesforce tower, right where I had the idea to lead this initiative. It feels like things have come full circle; at the same time, some things will have changed forever.

This journey dramatically altered the way I see my own reality. Part of that means I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for my career.

I’ve been walking around San Francisco for the past year and a half feeling ambivalent every day. Is this really the job I’m supposed to be in? Will I ever stand out in a 400,000 person corporation? For years, I’d been wanting to get involved with social impact initiatives, but management consulting didn’t feel like it would be conducive to my goals.

But somehow, here I am.

Our team presents our findings at the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco.

Every year at training, some executive stands up and tells 200 of us young analysts that our career is what we make of it. But that’s so hard to believe when your day-to-day always rolls up to someone else’s vision.

As I look out at the smoke-free skyline today, something starts to click in my mind. There will always be red tape and bureaucracy, and there will always be an internal struggle of if a company is “good” or “bad”. But it’s a lot more nuanced than that.

All big companies hold a lot of power, and it’s up to leadership to disseminate as a force for positive change. I felt empowered to ask for help, even when I was starting to feel stuck and dejected. I pushed myself to take a chance and get my idea out in the world, because no one at Accenture has ever shut me down for having a stupid idea.

I feel like my voice is always heard.

Mr. Incredible was told that a company is like a big clock. It only works if “all the little cogs mesh together.” I felt like him sometimes, but now I feel more like I could be a superhero someday.

I took a leap of faith to put my company’s power to good use, and it worked, with overwhelming impact. I feel like a lot more than a tiny cog in a huge clock. It hasn’t been easy to navigate this path and un-cog myself, but I think I’m starting to figure it out.

I hope you do too.

On January 8, 2019, I released a special episode of my podcast, Get Schooled, to shed some more light on what we uncovered after the fire. This episode covers the systemic public education problems that Paradise High School is facing.

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Nivi Achanta

I’m the founder of Soapbox Project (www.soapboxproject.org), host of Get Schooled Podcast, and passionate about helping people do more with their limited time.