Volunteers turn grief into good deeds following October wildfires
In the wake of the October wildfires, people across Sonoma County were left heartbroken by the devastating loss of homes, possessions and lives.
But some have taken their grief and forged it into a force for good. Psychologists have found that getting involved rather than staying isolated and actively engaging in the struggle instead of feeling powerless helps people not only survive, but thrive, following a stressful situation.
Many of these Good Samaritans have found ways to make a difference by helping others in ways that played to their strengths.
One delivered food to the hungry. Another created a website to help people support fire survivors and the local businesses contributing to relief efforts. A third has tried to raise awareness of changes that could prevent a firestorm from ever taking such a devastating toll again.
The community has become stronger because of them. Here are a few of their stories.
‘The itch to do more’
Sonoma State University graduate Vanessa Johns, 31, lives with her fiancé on San Miguel Avenue in Santa Rosa, on the western end of the street where three-quarters of the homes are still standing.
On the night the fire jumped the freeway, the couple woke up at 2:15 a.m. and smelled smoke. They opened the blinds and saw a smoky, orange glow to the east and chaos to the west, a line of evacuating cars. It took them 10 minutes to get dressed, corral their pets and join the mass exodus.
Johns called her employer, Sonic, to see if they could go to its west Santa Rosa offices with their pets. They stayed one day, then she spent the rest of the week turning the facility into a makeshift shelter for employees, making runs to Costco and buying air mattresses.
At Sonic, Johns worked in human resources and helped develop a program encouraging employees to give back to the community through acts of service.
“Between that and taking care of people during the fires, it really gave me the itch to do more,” she said. “In November, I started volunteering at the (Redwood Empire) Food Bank with fire relief distribution.”
Every year, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, the food bank serves 82,000 people in five counties: Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte. In Sonoma County, she said, 1 in 6 suffer from hunger.
“I am personally drawn to working at a distribution site,” she said. “You’re handing out food and seeing the positive impact you’re having on people’s lives.”
In March, Johns applied for a job at the food bank as community engagement coordinator and got it, using her marketing skills to speak to the community and conduct food and fund drives.
“I share our mission and what work we’re doing,” she said. “Our mission is to end hunger in our community, and we all work really hard to do that.”
Every Wednesday since the fire, Johns hands out bags of food at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which started a new program to feed fire survivors who have lost a home, a job or both. The food allows displaced people to focus on more pressing needs, like finding a job and a place to live.
“There are still people affected by the October fires,” she said. “The last thing we want is for people going through such difficult life situations to have to worry about what to put in their stomachs.”
A day after the fire, web designer Giovani Camara, 22, of Petaluma wanted to help but could not find a place that still needed volunteers. Then he read a post on the Firestorm Update Facebook page urging people to support businesses giving back to relief efforts. “These are the businesses that in these hard times ... we should be supporting,” the post stated.
Camara immediately went to work, poring over spreadsheets and finding photos to translate that information into a reader-friendly format for the web.
“If you’re gifted at something, that’s the best way to give,” said Camara, who works for Kreck Design in Santa Rosa. “You don’t need much money to make an impact. You just need time.”
In search of a URL, Camara reached out to the person who was using #sonomaproud and pitched his idea. He not only got permission to use the domain name in his website, sonomaproud.com, but was offered free hosting for a year. Then he built it from the ground up.
“Initially, it was an all-nighter,” he said. “I worked for two straight days, and then it evolved.”
To help the businesses, he added links to Google, Facebook and Yelp, so that people could leave reviews. The site listed more than 50 businesses ranging from Epicenter, a sports complex in west Santa Rosa that served as a donation and distribution center, to VCA Animal Hospitals, which gave free care to animals injured in the fires.