Lance Walker, head coach of the men’s volleyball team at Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills, was planning to take his team to a match on a Saturday morning in November. The Woolsey Fire altered those plans.

When Walker arrived at the school gymnasium on November 10, he expected to meet his squad before traveling to the San Diego area for a preseason tournament—one of few opportunities for the group to play together, train, and bond in competition before their season began. Instead, he found the facility converted into an American Red Cross Emergency Evacuation Center for rescue efforts. More than 1,100 of the 235,000 displaced residents of the Woolsey Fire in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties had taken refuge on campus.

“Immediately, it was like, ‘There’s something that’s going on here that’s bigger than volleyball,” Walker recalls. “My guys were coming in. You could see it on their faces too. It was an eye-opening experience.”

The team held a quick discussion. They realized that volleyball could wait and decided to cancel the trip south, staying on campus to assist their fellow residents in need. “We had a meeting [about whether to go to the tournament], but it didn’t really need to be said,” Walker says. “It was just, ‘Let’s help out today.’”

And so they did. While a few players who lived in areas that were potentially going to be affected by the fires returned to their homes, the rest of the guys started breaking down boxes, cleaning up the delivery area, organizing supplies, providing rides, bunching bananas, even doing coloring books with the kids in a special play area. They tackled anything that needed to be done, staying for two days after dividing themselves into shifts to ensure that a group was always present.

Courtesy of Lance Walker

“The guys went out and took the initiative. They just figured out where they were needed and started working,” says Walker, who was proud of the team effort his guys showed as he worked alongside them.

It was a bonding experience for the team and for the community. “This is our natural disaster,” says Walker, who also works as a tree surgeon for the city of Los Angeles. “It was a really special thing to be a part of. At the end of the day, we had players hugging it out with Red Cross workers.”

The team even got a shout-out from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “I’ve heard incredible stories like the volleyball team showing up at the gym for practice, then pitching in, realizing they weren’t going to have practice but that there were people in need,” the politician said during an onsite livestream.

While Walker’s team missed out on a chance to hone their skills in competition, they gained something far more valuable. “It was pretty cool to watch [the student athletes] help out. It wasn’t, ‘Hey coach, what do I do?’ We were the worker bees,” he says.

And who knows? Now that the community is getting back on its feet, perhaps some of the people the team helped will come to the next Pierce College volleyball match to cheer on their new friends.