Fire victims recognize enduring chefs and volunteers at Sonoma Family Meal
Last year’s wildfires still have a chokehold on many Sonoma County residents. As those in flux grapple with insurance claims, permits, rentals and rebuilding, there’s a sense of enduring chaos that makes each day a challenge.
Julie Rae Oliver is one of those residents, and she credits Sonoma Family Meal for helping her family keep it together with free, comforting meals and understanding that her family is still deeply in limbo.
“Because it has been a year, you feel, wow, they haven’t forgotten us,” she said. “Somewhere in your life you still need validation for your loss.”
Rae Oliver’s Fountaingrove home burned to the ground when the fires ravaged through Sonoma County last year, and she and her family have been receiving food from Sonoma Family Meal for the past six months.
The organization, a co-mingling of good deed chefs, volunteers and restaurants, continues to provide meals for about 85 families who, more than year later, are still trying to find their way home. Sonoma Family meal is now serving five additional families who have relocated to Sonoma County after losing their homes in the Camp fire.
“There’s something about being in grief that prevents you from creating something in your kitchen,” Rae Oliver explained. “You know you need to eat but you can’t think of what to eat or what to make … It’s like Sonoma Family Meal is saying ‘We’re here for you. We get it.’?”
Rae Oliver said she has been suffering from Secondary Stress Syndrome after that harrowing night when the wind howled through her neighborhood spewing embers and ash.
“I was in a controlled panic,” she said. “That’s when your eyes are really big and you feel as if you’re going to start screaming, you’re going to waste your energy.”
Rae Oliver, her husband, Mike Yee, and their 11-year-old daughter, Meleah, grabbed their dog, Rosie, and their cat, Fufu, racing out of the neighborhood at 2 a.m. By 3:30 a.m. their house was engulfed in flames.
“When you’re in a run for your life, you can’t think consciously,” Rae Oliver said. “I didn’t know I was running for my life. Whether or not we were coming back never went through my mind.”
Rae Oliver and her family have been on the move ever since. They initially stayed with friends on McDonald Avenue then stayed at the Inn at the Tides in Bodega Bay, and finally rented a home in Rincon Valley. They are in the process of rebuilding their home, but framing will have to wait until after the spring rains. “I’d rather be the one who is feeding other people, but right now I have to let them feed us,” Rae Oliver said. “It’s really hard to accept help and admit you’re needy. But we all have a need to give and so someone has to receive. My part right now is being the receiver of the kindness and love.”
Rae Oliver picks up the weekly meals on Mondays at Franchettis’ restaurant in Santa Rosa. Sometimes, she notices counselors at a table out front for those who want to talk. Other times she sees a mini farmers market where people can help themselves to extra produce and a bouquet of flowers.
“When you get to take a bouquet of flowers, well that really cheers up a house,” she said.
Heather Ames, executive chef of Sonoma Family Meal, said “the families still need support. The whole process is taxing. At least the families don’t have to worry about food every night. They can have a little slice of normal in the middle of all the crazy.”
Each family gets an insulated bag with three meals and often some fresh produce.
Many Sonoma County chefs and restaurants have contributed to the mission - meals, food, money and time. They include Preferred Sonoma Catering, McNear’s Saloon & Dining House, Singlethread, Valette and Kendall Jackson.
“You’ve heard that you don’t pick cooking, it picks you,” Ames said. “The goal is to feed people delicious food and make them happy whether you’re cooking at the Ritz or a shelter.”