Colleen Scott of Cotati works 10 hours a day and is raising 3-year-old twins with her husband, Brian, but every year she donates at the holidays, just like her parents did when she was growing up in the A section of Rohnert Park.
“We didn’t have much money, but we didn’t realize it,” she said. “My parents always donated to help others. It’s how we’ve always been.”
But this year, shopping for the Toys for Tots barrels at her workplace was not the same. The devastating wildfires had hit a soft spot in Colleen’s heart, and she felt compelled to do more.
“This fire was so close to home that I wanted to help people directly,” she said, “I didn’t just want to donate money.”
Through Facebook, Scott connected with Tanya Hosner of Rohnert Park, who also felt an urgent need this holiday season to help those who lost homes and more in the fires and decided to launch her own, grassroots effort.
“The emotional burden that this fire caused ... your heart just breaks for them,” Hosner said.
While scrolling through the Santa Rosa Firestorm Update Facebook page, Hosner got the idea to connect volunteers from the community with families who had suffered drastic losses from the fires. By mid-October, Hosner had started her own Facebook page, “Adopt a Fire Victim Family for a Holiday,”
“I reached out immediately to her,” Scott said. “It was hard to find places that were giving directly to fire victims.”
Hosner put her detail-oriented skills and social media savvy to work to identify fire victim families, which was more difficult than finding volunteers.
“I contacted the families to tell them about the project,” she said. “Then I asked for volunteers to adopt the families.”
It took a month or so to get the ball rolling. Hosner was able to make one successful match by Thanksgiving, with a family from Coffey Park who wanted a meal.
For the volunteer cook, Hosner called upon Scott, who prepared a homemade meal for the mother, two kids and their grandparents still living in a Santa Rosa hotel. On her way to her own parents’ home, Scott delivered a ham, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.
From there, things started to pick up for Hosner’s adoption effort. By early December, she had identified 25 fire families and was busy matching their wish lists with 25 or more volunteer families. Since she works full time, she had to spend nights and weekends fielding phone calls, e-mails and Facebook messages from the 50-plus participants.
“In the beginning, I thought if we could help 10 families, that would be enough,” she said. “I didn’t think it would grow this much.”
Through trial and error, Hosner developed her own vetting process for the fire families, asking them for their fire stories, checking them on Facebook, then developing a list of questions to help narrow down their needs.
“This is what we offer — a tree, stocking, gifts, a meal,” she said. “I feel strongly that Christmas is not just about gifts, It’s about everything.”
The process was more complicated than she imagined, with every family in a slightly different situation.
One fire family had celiac disease, so they asked for a gift card to a restaurant. Another family wanted to cook their own Christmas meal, so they asked for a Safeway gift card. Families still living in a hotel could not have a real tree, so they needed a fake one.
“There’s all kinds of scenarios,” said Hosner. “We’re all different.”
By early December, Hosner was still looking for volunteers to provide Christmas trees and the holiday meal for a few families.
“Some people are adopting for everything (a tree, stocking, gifts and meal), which spreads them pretty thin,” she said. “The volunteer family is responsible for dropping off all the things on their wish list.” After she found the Todhunter family — a young couple with three girls — Hosner matched them with Scott and her family. The Todhunters lost their home in Hidden Valley during the fire but felt relatively lucky.
Mom Erica Todhunter never fell asleep that night, so she had time to think about what to bring with her when they evacuated at 2:30 a.m. She took clothing, a jewelry box with her grandmother’s wedding ring and a digital storage system for all of their photos and videos. Their three daughters ages 7 to 13 had time to grab a few outfits, their wallets and some childhood souvenirs such as baby blankets.
While Todhunter has taken advantage of free offers she sees advertised on Facebook, she felt ambivalent about accepting help from the adopt-a-family project.
“At first, I felt we are fine ... we’re more fortunate than most,” Todhunter said. “But then I learned that people wanted to help, they’re dying to help ... so whenever I come across that, I’ve been signing up.”
Since the whole family loves Disney, she asked for some Disney ornaments for their Christmas tree.
“Our family always wanted to do a Disney Christmas,” Todhunter said. “And we never got that.” At Hosner’s insistence, however, she eventually made a wish list on Amazon of toys for the kids and kitchen items for the adults. The family is staying with a friend temporarily until they move into a house in Bennett Valley owned by Erica’s father. Then they plan to rebuild.
“Our entire street lost our homes — 20 or 25 of us,” she said. “The people are what make our neighborhood so great. Luckily, the vast majority are rebuilding.”
To help with the Christmas tree effort, Hosner and her husband went the Mendocino National Forest in early December to cut down trees for their family and for a few of the adopted families. On their way home, they dropped off a tree at the home of a Santa Rosa couple with a young baby who recently moved to Cloverdale after losing their home.
By mid-December, Hosner was also getting ready to play Santa, with plans to drop off ornaments made by an East Bay girl scout troop for each of the adopted families as well as the gifts provided by one company to a total of 10 families.
In addition, she planned to “adopt” any families that were left because they were difficult to match, such as a woman from Larkfield who evacuated after her home suffered smoke damage, and a family getting ready to move into a Section 8 home that ended up burning down in the fire.
Everyone involved in the holiday relief effort — from donors to recipients — have been touched by the way people came together after the tragic blaze.
“It was very emotional,” Scott said. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
During the Southern California fires in early December, Todhunter put together leftover items from a local donation center for the Sonoma County fires and had then delivered to victims of the fires in the south.
“We wanted to send that initial wave,” she said. “There’s kitchen items and bedding ... The truck is ready to go.”
It’s her way of paying it forward, after experiencing the generosity of friends offering up their homes and donating to her family’s YouCaring account.
“Strangers from the East Coast are gifting us money,” she said. “People are amazing.”
Meanwhile, Hosner has her own debt to repay for the kindness showered on her at a key moment in her life.
Her family broke apart when she was only 10, leaving her on her own, but she was “adopted” by a friend’s mother, Marie Butler of Healdsburg, when she was 15.
“It was quite a blessing,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of good memories of holidays after our family split up.”
But when Butler came into her life, the holidays became special again.
“The way I grew up, I know how it feels to be alone,” she said. “And I don’t want anyone else to feel that way.”
For more information on Adopt A Fire Victim Family for a Holiday, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or email@example.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.