North Bay nonprofit needs shift from dollars to volunteers

Recent research shows that October’s wildfires impacted 85 percent of the North Bay’s nonprofits, which have seen their needs shift from cash to volunteers.|

In the immediate aftermath of last year’s devastating wildfires, nonprofits and other organizations in the North Bay worked to find cash for fire victims. But these days, the needs have shifted, and organizations are looking for something much more significant: they need volunteers.

Strong, able and willing bodies. Selfless bodies. In many cases, all comers are welcome, so long as they are able to pitch in with recovery efforts - and soon.

“There is an intense need for volunteers and volunteerism across the county,” said Cami Kahl, executive director of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, which helps coordinate volunteer efforts for more than 200 nonprofits. “Some of our research indicates we could need more than 1,000 volunteers in the next six months alone.”

A recent survey conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy and commissioned by Community Foundation Sonoma County and Napa Valley Community Foundation highlighted that need.

It found that 85 percent of North Bay nonprofits were impacted in some way by October’s wildfires.

Of 184 respondents, 81 percent said they needed to provide services to more individuals or organizations after the fires, and 73 percent said they added new services or projects in response to the fires.

“The message about our community’s needs is loud and clear: we need more help,” Elizabeth Brown, president and CEO of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, said in a statement.

Some needs have been greater than others, starting with a demand for mental health counselors who can donate time and services to help fire victims still grappling with the trauma of losing everything, Kahl said. Translators who can help native Spanish speakers navigate the process of filling out paperwork from the federal government also are needed.

As Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations begin rebuilding homes and other structures, they’re going to need skilled laborers to register as volunteers, Kahl said.

In Sonoma Valley, environmental and conservation organizations are desperate for volunteers to help rebuild trails and repair hillsides charred in the wildfires.

The Sonoma Ecology Center has led a number of trail-maintenance workdays at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Volunteer coordinator Sorrel Allen said there will be others in the weeks and months ahead. For details, visit

The workdays usually take place on Saturdays and run about four hours, Allen said. While braving poison oak and sunlight overhead, participants help build bridges and steps, install signs, clear debris, or carry supplies to distribution points along the trails. Many volunteers also have been remediating the effects of firebreaks made by fire crews, Allen said.

Sonoma County Regional Parks also seeks volunteers.

Director Bert Whitaker said volunteer crews will help with an ongoing effort to replant flora that was wiped out in the fires or withered because of poor soil.

“It can be hard work at times, but it’s fulfilling to be able to see that you’re making a difference,” Whitaker said about the volunteer opportunities, open to locals and visitors alike.

“Regional Parks on our own do not have the resources to do this work,” he said. “We literally couldn’t do it without help from the public.”

Elsewhere in the county, nonprofits are seeking support in other ways - from preparing meals to helping the homeless.

Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit run by Press Democrat food writer Heather Irwin and Chef John Franchetti, regularly cooks dinners for 60 families who lost their homes during the wildfires, and the organization accepts volunteers for just about any task - cooking, serving, packing or transporting food.

Irwin said her group also is working with local chefs to expand the program and create a chef emergency network to respond to future natural disasters.

“We take volunteers of all stripes,” she said. “Basically we need all the help we can possibly get.”

Ariel Kelley agrees. Kelley, an executive at Corazón Healdsburg, an agency that works with the Latino community to connect them with existing resources and services, was the mastermind behind the Healdsburg Free Store. The store provided donated clothing, furniture and other household goods to hundreds of people displaced from their homes in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

Though the store has since shut down, Kelley’s organization has remained involved in volunteer initiatives, helping connect those still homeless six months after the fires with lodging options.

“At a time like this, anything anybody can do to help is going to make a difference,” Kelley said. “Just because the fires are out and we’ve started rebuilding doesn’t mean our efforts should subside.”

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