Rebuilding Sonoma County: Hope Crisis Relief Network building new homes for fire survivors
Steve Elliott travels a lot more than the average American, but not for vacation. His faith that calls him to do it.
Over the past 13 months, Elliott has visited Lake County, south Texas, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico with a singular purpose: to volunteer in communities struck by natural disasters.
Elliott came with the Tri-Valley Methodist Churches, based in the East Bay. Unlike some church-based relief groups, the Methodists do not proselytize, and Elliott says it’s important in his faith to do things simply for the benefit of other people.
“We do it to serve others,” Elliott said. “This is all really about putting our faith into action. If all you do is talk about your faith and you don’t do something with it, it’s not complete.”
This month, Elliott is in Middletown, volunteering for the Hope Crisis Response Network, a faith-based nonprofit headquartered in Lake County that is rebuilding homes destroyed in the 2015 Valley fire using a mostly volunteer labor force drawn from churches nationwide.
Volunteers arrive on Sundays, then work Monday through Friday. The next week, another group comes in to pick up where the last group left off, with help from a few full-time paid employees.
Hope Crisis Response Network provides dormitory-style housing and meals for all volunteers. The group aims to have 25 to 30 volunteers at a time, but numbers vary from week to week and the dorms can house up to 60.
So far the group has completed 19 homes in Lake County, and three more are under construction.
It is now turning its sights to Sonoma County, where the October 2017 firestorm destroyed more than 5,300 homes. Earlier this year, the group organized the Inspiring Hope Shed Build, where volunteers in Santa Rosa built 100 toolsheds that are being used to store construction materials for houses while they are rebuilt.
It has approved two clients in Sonoma County who lost their homes in the 2017 wildfires and will rebuild their houses once the permitting process is complete.
Founded a little more than 20 years ago in Indiana by Sonoma County native Kevin Cox and his wife, Valerie, the Hope Crisis Response Network and its related organization, Hope City, have worked on large-scale relief after disasters including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Now, they’re focused exclusively on long-term efforts for people who lost their homes in the series of wildfires that have devastated Northern California over the past three years. The group plans to build around 80 houses in the area.
Faith inspired Kevin Cox to found the group 20 years ago - faith, and a frightening incident that made him realize how important it was to serve his community.
Cox and his wife, Valerie, were working in the restaurant and catering business when a man they knew from a local theater suffered a mental crisis in what Cox described as “a situation that could have gotten really deadly.”
“The Lord just took care of it. It was a very peaceful situation that the Lord just resolved,” Cox said. “And out of that, I just felt why are we spending so much time in this business … when there’s so much anguish around us?”
Cox built the organization over the years as he and Valerie traveled around the country responding to disasters and gaining expertise in relief and reconstruction efforts. Neither of them draws a salary from the organization, instead relying on Valerie’s income from a grant from North Coast Opportunities that allows her to work at Hope City and as a case manager with North Coast Opportunities.
“I think our greatest success is always handing the keys over to a homeowner and giving them the opportunity to move in to a rebuilt home,” Valerie Cox said. “It is definitely the high point of what we do, and provides us with great joy.”
“It’s a nice little house. We don’t build big, we don’t build fancy, but we do build good,” Kevin Cox said.
Sal and Maria Pimentel agree. They live in a three-bedroom home that Hope Crisis Response Network completed construction on earlier this year.
“This house is much nicer than the one that burned,” Maria said in her native Spanish (she came to Middletown from Michoacán, Mexico, in 1998 to join husband Sal, who had traveled between Lake County and Michoacán since 1977). “It’s got everything! Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen. … I don’t have words to thank them for everything they’ve done for us, and I’m very, very happy.”
The group builds its houses to two different specifications: the three-bedroom model it built for Sal and Maria and a two-bedroom, 1½-bath version for individuals and smaller families. A house it is currently building for Middletown resident Mickey Thibodeau is a modified version to conform to ADA standards. Thibodeau suffered a stroke a few months after he lost his home, and is now uses a wheelchair. Though initially frustrated by an inability to obtain further modifications to the floorplan, Thibodeau said now he feels very thankful for the rebuilding assistance offered by the Hope Crisis Response Network.