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Founder of Petaluma’s ‘Fabulous Women’ first inspired by Oprah

The North Bay Spirit award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

For Krista Gawronski, the call to service came in the form of a question. She and her sister, Sandra Fetter, had scored tickets to a conference at which their idol Oprah Winfrey was keynote speaker.

“What are you good at? How are you going to turn that into some service, some contribution back to the community?” the TV megastar challenged the crowd.

The question stayed with Gawronski. At the time she was parenting two small boys and managing a business, Mr. Pickles Sandwich Shop in Petaluma. But she was also yearning to find a higher purpose.

Two years passed before the answer emerged when Gawronski had occasion to rally around a neighbor in need. That small act of kindness inspired her to a form of grassroots community that is as much about showing love and support to people in crisis as it is about financial giving. Whenever there is a need, Gawronski and her “Fabulous Women,” appear on the scene like an emergency response crew, bearing food, hugs, good cheer and support for people in crisis, whether it is illness, loss or financial need.

“We really want to get people away from the idea that you have to have money to give,” said Gawronski, flashing a deeply dimpled smile that is a secret weapon of disarmament for anyone who might be considering saying no to The Fabulous Women. “It can be time. It can be a pair of socks or food from your pantry. It’s a collective coming together.”

In the 14 years that The Fabulous Women have been sprinkling acts of kindness on the Sonoma County community, the group has raised several hundred thousand dollars, mostly through small donations of $20 or less.

Gawronski is not one to grab credit. The acknowledgments in her new book, “Be Good: A Heart-Centered Journey,” in which she shares her prescription for a richer life through compassion and service and faith in something greater than oneself, go on for three pages.

But Gawronski emerged as the frontwoman, spark plug, instigator, idea woman, engine and central heart of a multitude of Fabulous Women productions. Those range from fundraisers for people going through health or financial crises or tragic loss, to public workshops aimed at raising awareness of important issues that affect everyday people. The group also issues small grants to individuals in need and stages community gatherings like Petaluma’s annual Festival of Trees, a warmhearted free holiday event at the Hotel Petaluma that looks like it could have been lifted out of a Hallmark Christmas movie, complete with fake snow.

For her years of grassroots service, Gawronski was selected to receive the first North Bay Spirit Award, an honor created as a way to call out people whose good deeds are hands on, close to the ground and go beyond merely volunteering. The Spirit award puts a spotlight on people who come up with creative solutions to community problems and go all-in with a lead-by-example style that inspires others to step up as well.

Gawronski, who draws from a seemingly bottomless well of energy and compassion, embodies that type of giving. Beyond her own good deeds, she has made it her mission to uplift others and inspire them to “use their gifts for service.”

Created a model

Through The Fabulous Women, which she co-founded with her sister, Sandra Fetter, Gawronski created a model for a populist style of community giving that can be undertaken at any level. The events never charge admission. Food is potluck or donated. Money is raised through silent auctions, raffles and passing the can donations. People are asked to give only what they can or feel compelled to give.

“Not everybody can write the thousand-dollar check,” said Gawronski, who turns 49 in February. “When I look at these big fundraisers for different groups, I understand. They are raising money for good causes. But it might cost $200 to attend an event. Most people don’t have that. They really don’t. That almost gives people permission to sit it out.”

The model for the organization came about by happenstance. One of Gawronski’s neighbors, a young British mother of two, was suddenly widowed when her husband died freakishly of a staph infection. He was in England and she was alone in a new country with a newborn and no family, income or a way to get home.

Gawronski invited a group of friends, neighbors and loyal customers over to her east Petaluma house for potluck, then put a paint can in the middle of her living room floor and challenged everybody to consider what they’d spend on a night out with friends and place that amount in the can. After everyone went home she picked up the can in astonishment. It was covered with caring messages and crammed with $1,000 all given by people of modest means.

The North Bay Spirit award

The North Bay Spirit award was developed in partnership with The Press Democrat and Comcast NBCU to celebrate people who make a difference in our communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the North Bay Spirit program aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofit organizations and create a spirit of giving. Read about a new North Bay Spirit recipient every month in the Sonoma Life section.

To nominate your own candidate go to www.pressdemocrat.com/northbayspirit

Harnessing power

Gawronski and her sister, an attorney, were blown away by the generosity and knew they had hit upon a formula for harnessing that power of human compassion to make a difference. The result was The Fabulous Women. The nonprofit has a seven-member board of directors but no membership dues or regular meetings or forms to fill out. Members are their 2,500 Facebook followers and whoever else shows up to help, donate or lend support to their causes and events.

“It’s always been come when you can and give whatever you feel inspired to give,” Gawronski said. “Somehow it always works out, because at the end of an event always we’re better off than we were.“

When a tragedy goes down in the community, the women mobilize.

In September they gathered for “An Evening for Courtney,” complete with an oyster bar, to raise money and show support for Courtney Whalen, a young mom with stage 3 throat cancer. In April they held a small, in-home gathering for a young special education teacher from Petaluma with diabetes that raised several thousand dollars to help her buy insulin.

Name any publicly reported tragedy - and many that were not - and The Fabulous Women, with Gawronski leading the charge, were likely to rush to help. More than 800 people turned out for Jeff and Ling Murray, whose 2-year-old daughter, Calli, was killed in a crosswalk in Rohnert Park by a teenage driver who was texting. When Kim Baucom, a popular Petaluma teacher, mother of four, and member of The Fabulous Women was gunned down by her estranged husband, they held a Domestic Violence Awareness Day for the community. When 19-year-old Alyssa Byrne of Petaluma froze to death in the snow in Lake Tahoe they held an event for youth to spread the word about safety and watching out for each other. The “Colors of Courage” event raised awareness about childhood cancer and money to stock the closet at UCSF’s children’s unit with gifts for kids in treatment.

“It meant the world for our family,” Jeff Murray said of the help by Gawronski and the Fabulous Women after the accident that killed his daughter and severely injured his wife.

“I was unemployed at the time. We really had no income. When they were able to raise the money for us it was a big burden off of us financially.” The women also took the opportunity to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

Ling Murray and Gawronski had played together on the same volleyball team. The support Gawronski gave was more like a close family member, Murray said.

“At the time of a tragedy it showed us that people do care.”

The Fabulous Women also launched The Festival of Trees to create something that was free and fun and appealed to people of all ages.

“We didn’t want to just be about doing heavy causes where people have a tragedy or sadness, said Gawronski. “We also wanted to bring to our community an occasion that is fun and wholesome and free and gives people the opportunity to get into the spirit of giving.”

Meet at Mr. Pickles

Her base of operations is frequently behind the counter at Mr. Pickles, a gathering spot whose walls are like a community scrapbook of photos and memorabilia and clippings, many of them related to local sports. The Gawronskis, including her husband, Paul, a world-class stock car racer, and sons Frank, 20, and Vince, 16, are all deep into sports.

Gawronski is now looking to expand her heart’s work to a bigger stage. In the last year she reluctantly stepped down from the role of president to pursue a new mission as a writer and inspirational speaker with a similar message of helping others find their higher “Soul Purpose” (The title of her first book published in 2015) and to “Dare to Shine.”

One of her recent projects has been to hold a series of get-togethers in private homes, always featuring a woman speaker who shares her story or expertise with the group around an issue that could resonate with many people, from dealing with changes that come with age to the emotional issues around money management.

“She’s my firecracker friend, my person who can spread light and joy no matter what the circumstance. She can always see the silver lining and she can get people to rally,” said Melissa Becker, the principal at Petaluma’s Meadow School who replaced Gawronski at the helm of The Fabulous Women. “Krista can stand up at an event and it’s so authentic. That is her biggest strength. She’s not pretending. She’s 120 percent into everything. She’ll work the hardest and be there the latest.”

Becker said she not only is good at coming up with ideas, but at carrying them out, something not everyone can do.

Pay it forward

She recalls one night when the Women went on “ambush” in Petaluma. They created little booklets and filled them with gift cards and placed them on random dashboards and planter boxes throughout the town, with a message to pay it forward.

Gawronski wrestled for a long time over whether to step down to devote more time to her dream. She had worked so hard to nurture The Fabulous Women she didn’t want to abandon it. But in October 2017 she found herself on vacation in Italy when the community of Sonoma County caught on fire.

It was “horrible,” she said, not being home to help in her usual way. But she also had an epiphany. She saw from afar how many other people poured forth with love and support. She knew at that point that it wasn’t all on her to do everything.

“My message is that we can all be compassionate,” she said. “Love is infinite. It’s not about what you do or how much. It’s only that you do something.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-5215204.

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