Olga Moen and her family never expected to leave the Finley Community Center last week with a truckload of Christmas presents, much less to be on national television.
They were headed to what they believed was a meeting for wildfire victims, but instead ended up with nine other families who lost homes in October’s fires. All of them gasped, laughed and cried as they were led into an auditorium filled with gifts stacked around 10 Christmas trees, each labeled with a family’s name.
Some Walmart employees from Rohnert Park and Windsor in Santa hats cheered and clapped as families made their way into the room, while others wheeled in shopping carts full of comforters, blankets, kitchenware and toys, parking them near flat screen TVs and outdoor grills. The surprise was captured on film by a team from NBC’s "Today" show, which partnered with Walmart for the “Getting to the Heart of Christmas” campaign.
The whole scene airs this morning on the show seen by more than 4 million viewers.
“The kids were in heaven,” said Moen, a Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital registered nurse who lost her Mark West Estates home in the fires two months after moving in.
Her 5-year-old daughter, Sasha, immediately cracked open the “Pete the Cat” books, one of her favorite series, that were lost that night. Eight-year-old Drew couldn’t wait to play with the Xbox under the tree.
“Just to see the excitement on their faces is overwhelming,” Moen said.
“I’m not the type to tear up,” said her husband, Nick Moen, 36. “I teared up.”
The family credits registered nurse Payton Walton for brightening up the holidays. The "Today" show and Walmart reached out to Walton, a Santa Rosa Memorial and Sutter Regional Hospital registered nurse, after she launched an online fundraiser to support families displaced by the wildfires.
Walton, who lives in Mill Valley, contacted her neighbors through the social network Nextdoor and matched them with families in need of clothing, food and other necessities. Within five minutes, she had 50 people volunteer to help fire victims, said Walton, who initially matched donors with hospital personnel.
“Some of them were still at work when their houses burned down. I just kept thinking I can’t go home and have a day off when I know they lost their homes,” said Walton, who has since expanded her efforts.
The 10 families who received gifts last week — they were chosen by "Today" — are among the 220 families Walton has helped.
Becki Geernaert, 37, was at the Finley Community Center with four of her five kids. That night two months ago, she didn’t have time to pack as the Tubbs fire rapidly approached her Mark West Springs neighborhood. She grabbed her kids, including infant twins, and their two dogs and raced out the door.
“We literally got out with just the clothes on our backs,” she said.
Last week, her kids cheerfully unwrapped presents, including an Easy-Bake Oven, dolls and baby toys.
Geernaert also got a stand mixer, Keurig machine and other household items to replace those she lost.
“I felt like I was a kid on Christmas morning,” she said.