Any other Monday morning, Steve Elliott would spot only a few cars in the parking lot outside his Rohnert Park toy, hobby and game store. On this unthinkable morning, dozens of cars were there, full of evacuees from the North Bay fires that had only begun their path of destruction.
Elliott had been alerted to the fires before dawn, when an employee scheduled to open the popular Fundemonium store called to say he was frantically evacuating relatives from the fast-moving fires burning in surrounding communities.
Like so many others, Elliott instinctively did what he could to help. He invited the carloads of people into the 14,000-square-foot business he owns with his wife, Jean, and quickly sent out a notice on Facebook offering Fundemonium as a place of relief.
“Play with whatever you’d like to play with,” Steve Elliott told the several dozen people who initially gathered at Fundemonium.
“People were standing around holding babies and had kids in PJs,” he said. Elliott estimates more than 100 people were in the parking lot when he arrived at 8 a.m.
The Kids Activity Area at the front of the store features play stations with attractions like wooden trains, Legos, a three-story dollhouse and a kiddie-sized workbench and kitchen. The Elliotts pulled out coloring books and stickers, puzzles, board games, magnetic building blocks and remote control cars for older kids — anything to help momentarily divert the worries of the families.
“I was amazed how strong they were,” Jean Elliott said. “Everybody was so calm.”
As families trickled in and out of the store, the couple recognized their shop could provide a bit of comfort in the days ahead. They posted invitations on Facebook, and word-of-mouth spread. Activities were offered free of charge; any other time, there is a $9 fee for the Kids Activity Area, with come-and-go privileges throughout the day.
Fundemonium provided activities for two weeks following the fires, until schools reopened and the air quality improved.
The first week of the fires was particularly busy.
“Wednesday and through the weekend we had pretty large crowds of people,” Steve Elliott said. “We had people from all over — the Santa Rosa area, Sonoma, Napa. We drew quite a large range of people.”
The Elliotts and their staff hosted friendly competitions like a Lego tower-building contest and kept plates of popcorn full for a Family Board Game Night. Customers came by with their pets to comfort kids.
Lesa Hull was among those who stopped by Fundemonium for a sense of normalcy, if, she said, that’s even possible. Hull, 54, lives in Rohnert Park but grew up in Santa Rosa. Two sisters still live there.
She brought her 2-year-old grandson, Landen, to run around and play at Fundemonium. With Landen clutching a toy dinosaur at her side, Hull said the pair would typically head to a “p-a-r-k,” but the smoky air was keeping them indoors. She spelled out “park,” rather than get Landen’s hopes up for some outdoors playtime.
“He’s been cooped up. We’ve been keeping him in because of the smoke,” said Hull, known by her grandson as “Mema.”
Hull is devastated for those impacted by the fires. She’s followed media reports but has been staying close to home and hasn’t traveled north to her hometown.
“I can’t even wrap my mind around it,” she said. “It’s just heartbreaking. It’s the worst thing we’ve had to experience.”
Hull is grateful to the Elliotts for opening their store to the community, and to the other children’s attractions in the North Bay also welcoming kids for free or reduced rates.
“I’m so thankful everyone’s come together,” she said. “It really does touch my heart there are places like this that do these things.”
One day, 160 children visited Fundemonium for a free “Cookies and Canvas” art session presented by Carmen Paparelli. Kids rotated throughout the afternoon for 30-minute classes to paint a Halloween scene of a comical bat flying across a full moon.
Fifth Sun Tattoo & Piercing of Rohnert Park delivered grab bags for children affected by the fires and treated kids to temporary tattoos and face painting.
Fundemonium’s neighboring trampoline arena business, Rebounderz Rohnert Park, also hosted free and reduced-fee activities for kids.
“We’re more creative and imaginative play, but sometimes kids need to get the raw energy out,” Steve Elliott said.
“It’s a little bit of getting back to being a bit normal and having a chance to have fun when everything’s been so crazy,” he said. “Once kids come in here, they’re just being kids.”
Fundemonium’s hospitality coincided with its third-anniversary celebration. After 10 years in Petaluma, the Elliotts moved their store to the larger space in Rohnert Park, where it’s become a community gathering place for fun and entertainment and, in recent weeks, for disaster relief.
Fundemonium, at 579 Rohnert Park Expressway W., hosts a free Halloween Spooktacular from 1 to 3 p.m. today, with Halloween crafts, play activities, a costume contest, prize giveaways and snacks. For more information, call 707-540-0701 or visit fundemoniumtoys.com or facebook.com/fundemonium.
Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org