When 13-year-old Ian Rich founded his nonprofit Operation Blanket four years ago to provide some warmth to the homeless in Sonoma County, he never thought one day his family might join their ranks.
That all changed on Oct. 9, when the Tubbs fire ripped through the family’s apartment building on Old Redwood Highway in Santa Rosa, consuming the material life he inhabited with his parents, Cary and Josiah Rich.
Ian Rich was supposed to make a delivery of $5,000 worth of blankets that morning to the Sonoma County Task Force for the Homeless, and then the fire changed everything.
Like so many others early that morning, no evacuation notice came for the Rich family. It was only when Josiah Rich, 63, woke shortly before 1 a.m. to the thick smell of smoke and fire on the horizon that the family knew they had to leave.
“We just got up and got out,” Cary Rich, 54, said.
The family fled south, eventually getting a hotel room in Emeryville about 5 a.m.
“He was trying to be strong for everyone, yet he was suffering and learning about loss first-hand,” Cary Rich said of Ian during the family’s escape from the flames. “And he’s also learning about homelessness first hand. One day he said to me, ‘Mama, we’re really homeless. Now I know how important Operation Blanket is for people. They really need us.’ That was his realization out of all of this.”
The family has been staying in a trailer on a friend’s property in Forestville while they look for a more permanent home. The fire also displaced the Riches’ daycare business, which they ran out of their apartment.
Though the blaze destroyed almost everything the Riches owned, the shipment of blankets — kept in a storage unit nearby — was spared.
In all, the group has donated about 1,000 blankets since its inception. The idea grew out of Ian Rich’s karate practice, where he first learned the word “compassion.” At the time just 9 years old, the home-schooled Ian Rich sat down to dinner with his family one night to talk about what he could do to show compassion for the many homeless people he saw around town. After first pondering what it might take to provide everyone with new homes, the ambitious boy eventually decided blankets might be a more feasible option.
Ian Rich’s new, intimate awareness about what it means to be homeless has made him more dedicated to the cause than ever, he said. This winter, he hopes to best the number of blankets collected in past years.
“It shows me how people feel,” he said. “I can understand it a lot more — how it feels if somebody’s sad that they lost their home. Now I understand how they feel even more.”