They fled their home with just their pets and some clothes. Then strangers stepped in.

Driving back to her apartment in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last Monday afternoon, Rachel Gilliam weaved her way through smoke so thick she couldn't make out the mountains south of town.

Wildfires burn outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images.

"Everything had this brown and yellow haze to it, like there was a sepia filter over the world," Gilliam says.


When she arrived home, she called local police and emergency services, who told her that no evacuations were planned. Gilliam's wife, Jess, who had just finished her shift at the distillery where they both work, wasn't willing to wait for an update:

"We need to go," Jess said.

Gilliam grabbed the couple's dog, their two cats, some clothes, and a bag containing their birth certificates and marriage license and fled north to Jess' parents in Knoxville, where they watched the next part of the story unfold on television and through panicked calls and text messages from friends.

Gilliam's apartment complex, after the fires. Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

Wildfires blew into town, killing at least 14, injuring dozens, and destroying hundreds of homes, including the apartment complex where the couple had just moved two months prior.

"It was like a bad dream. It was completely heart-wrenching," Gilliam says.

Just a few miles away in Knoxville, Lacy Mellon and her husband Jonathan were following the same news reports with growing alarm.

A Tennessee native and real estate agent, Mellon regularly rents out two spare bedrooms in her home, and a bungalow listed on Airbnb as, "good for couples, solo adventurers, business travelers, families (w/ kids), big groups, & furry friends (pets)!"

With no guests on the horizon, she saw a better use for the empty space.

"This is my home and these are my people," Mellon says. Hoping to provide some relief to residents displaced by the fires, she sought out a friend who works at Sugarlands Distillery, the same Gatlinburg distillery that employs Rachel Gilliam and her wife.

"I immediately texted her and asked if she knew anyone directly needing housing and told her about our open home," Mellon explains. The friend referred her to Gilliam, who moved into Mellon's bungalow with her pets soon after.

Mellon's bungalow. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I have no words to describe how amazing it felt to have a safe place to live and for the animals to be at no charge," Gilliam says.

In the wake of the Gatlinburg fires, Airbnb has made it easier for its Tennessee hosts to offer their properties to evacuees free of charge.

According to a statement from the company's head of global disaster relief, the Disaster Response Tool will be available to hosts in the Knoxville and Gatlinburg areas through Dec. 13. Airbnb activated the function after Hurricane Matthew slammed the southeastern United States in October.

A review of the site on Monday morning showed dozens of listings available to evacuees in Knoxville, and several more in the surrounding areas.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs." — Lacy Mellon

Amanda Lane, a nursing student at University of Tennessee, saw donating her space as an alternative to giving money or purchasing other needed items for evacuees, which she can't afford.

"I personally feel like I've lost part of my 'home,' but I can't imagine actually losing my house as well," Lane, who grew up camping and hiking near Gatlinburg, says. "I am devastated watching the news, seeing all of the damage, and I really just wanted to be able to help out in anyway that I can."

Others, like Liz Candlish, who operates the Glenwood Inn in Knoxville with her husband J.R., praised the company for making it easy to assist with relief efforts. "I really feel for all the people who lost everything in the fires and since we have the space, would love to offer it to help out," she explains. "We can't imagine what it would be like to have our house burn down, especially right before Christmas."

This is just one of many ways locals are coming together to provide relief to evacuees from the fires.

Other Knoxville businesses have been active in assisting the recovery effort, including local food truck Oishii Knox, which has been giving away free meals to first responders and Liberty Ink Tattoo, which created a special design, with all proceeds going to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund.

Last week, singer Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood amusement park sits right outside Gatlinburg, announced a fund to provide residents who lost their homes, like Gilliam, $1,000 per month for six months to help them re-establish themselves.

Mellon, who manages a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts in the local area, praised the Knoxville community for rallying to support their neighbors.

For her part, she said she plans to take Gilliam out for dinner and host her until she gets back on her feet.

Lacy Mellon and husband Jonathan. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs."

Gilliam said she's enormously grateful to Mellon for putting her and Jess up and to Sugarlands Distillery for its support.

According to Gilliam, the company has pledged to help her and Jess find permanent housing in Gatlinburg. The couple is committed to returning, and Gilliam hopes that visitors will continue seek the city out — as she and Jess did many times early in their relationship, before they lived there — despite the tragedy.

Gilliam (R) and wife Jess (L). Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

From time to time, Gilliam regrets what was lost in the fire — her grandfather's handkerchiefs, a collection of Disney and Star Wars memorabilia, and hundreds of movies. Still, she's thankful for what wasn't.

"Things are just things, but we are safe, and that's what matters."

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Amazon

Shopping sustainably is increasingly important given the severity of the climate crisis, but sometimes it's hard to know where to turn. Thankfully, Amazon is making it a little easier to browse thousands of products that have one or more of 19 sustainability certifications that help preserve the natural world.

The online retailer recently announced Climate Pledge Friendly, a program to make it easier for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products. To determine the sustainability of a product, the program partnered with third-party certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits, and independent labs.

With a selection of items spanning grocery, household, fashion, beauty, and personal electronics, you'll be able to shop more sustainably not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year for your essentials, as well.

You can browse all of the Climate Pledge Friendly products here, labeled with an icon and which certification(s) they meet. To get you on your way to shopping more sustainably, we've rounded up eight of our favorite Climate Pledge Friendly-products that will make great gifts all year long.

Amazon

Jack Wolfskin Women's North York Coat

Give the gift of warmth and style with this coat, available in a variety of colors. Sustainability is built into all Jack Wolfskin products and each item comes with a code that lets you trace back to its origins and understand how it was made.

Bluesign: Bluesign products are responsibly manufactured by using safer chemicals and fewer resources, including less energy, in production.


Amazon

Amazon All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen)

For the tech-obsessed. This Alexa smart speaker, which comes in a sleek, compact design, lets you voice control your entertainment and your smart home as well as connect with others.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.


Amazon

Burt's Bees Family Jammies Matching Holiday Organic Cotton Pajamas

Get into the holiday spirit with these fun matching PJs for the whole family. Perfect for pictures that even Fido can get in on.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

Naturistick 5-Pack Lip Balm Gift Set

With 100% natural ingredients that are gentle on ultra-sensitive lips, this gift is a great gift for the whole family.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.


Amazon

Arus Women's GOTS Certified Organic Cotton Hooded Full Length Turkish Bathrobe

For those who love to lounge around, this full-length organic cotton bathrobe is the way to go. Available in five different colors, it has comfortable cuffed sleeves, a hood, pockets, and adjustable belt.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

L'Occitane Extra-Gentle Vegetable Based Soap

This luxe soap, made with moisturizing shea butter and scented with verbena, is perfect for the self-care obsessed.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.

Amazon

Goodthreads Men's Sweater-Knit Fleece Long-Sleeve Bomber

For the fashionable men in your life, this fashion-forward knit bomber is an excellent choice. The sweater material keeps it cozy and warm, while the bomber jacket-cut, zip front, and rib-trim neck make it look elevated.

Recycled Claim Standard 100: Products with this certification use materials made from at least 95% recycled content.

Amazon

All-new Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote

Make it even easier to access your favorite movies and shows this holiday season. The new Fire TV Stick lets you use your voice to search across apps. Plus it controls the power and volume on your TV, so you'll never need to leave the couch! Except for snacks.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.

True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.