Two Sonoma Valley sisters give fire survivors meals, donations and more

When the North Bay wildfires broke out in 2017, sisters Angie and Sandy Sanchez sprang into action.

As managers at La Luz Center in Sonoma Valley, they’ve barely slowed down in the nearly two years since the devastating fires. From providing meals, information and reassurance during the first few weeks to managing a mountain of donated items, dispersing $1.2 million in funding, and establishing programming in the aftermath, the sisters have been integral in helping fire survivors.

In the two weeks following the fires, 270 meals were served each day at La Luz Center’s Booker Hall.

“It was really like the Angie and Sandy show,” said Juan Hernandez, the center’s executive director.

The women, he said, divvied emergency operations, with Angie overseeing meals, volunteers and donations of food, clothing, breathing masks and personal items. Sandy coordinated intake procedures to assess immediate and long-term needs.

More than 400 Sonoma Valley homes were destroyed in the firestorm.

The women worked tirelessly on relief and recovery efforts. And they are continuing to do so into the resiliency phase - strengthening the community and helping clients overcome the trauma and losses.

The Sanchez sisters assist a sensitive population of the valley, including undocumented Latinos ineligible for federal relief aid, and people with limited English skills and food, housing and financial insecurity. Some distrust government officials, fearful that immigration agents could deport them.

“We already knew our families are resilient,” said Sandy, 27, the center’s family services program manager. Now a Santa Rosa resident, she lived in Sonoma Valley when the firestorms hit.

Graduates of Sonoma Valley High School, both sisters are bilingual.

Many of their clients at La Luz are vineyard workers and those who work in housekeeping, landscaping or as day laborers or in food service. Many lost jobs permanently or temporarily when the fires raged during the wine harvest and peak tourism season. Others lost homes or were displaced by evacuation orders or power outages. Some lost perishable food purchased on tight budgets.

The sisters and other key La Luz Center staffers met with county officials just after the fires started, developing an emergency action plan carried out by Angie and Sandy.

“We were like a partnership,” said Angie, 32, the center’s community engagement manager and a resident of Agua Caliente, just a few miles from her job in Boyes Hot Springs.

“(La Luz) became a community hub,” she said. “It was a safe place to be.”

Despite their losses, fire survivors “were super humble. They were not asking for anything,” Angie added. “They were so happy to be alive and have a warm meal.”

The sisters were touched by the generosity of donors and the gratitude of the recipients.

“The donations and food just poured in,” Sandy said. “It was great. Those two weeks were crazy.”

La Luz opened a distribution site in a local shopping center, where the community could access the countless donations. She recalls her email flooded with offers of help.

“People were reaching out,” Angie said. “Gift cards, diapers, clothing, you name it. Toilet paper, all that stuff.”

Today, La Luz Center continues serving those impacted by the fires. Before the firestorms, it had a full-time staff of nine; it now has 22 full- and part-time employees.

Angie was preparing for midterms at Sacramento State University when the fires started, just two classes shy of her bachelor’s degree. She was juggling work, college and motherhood - she has a 13-year-old daughter, Natalia - but barely questioned her decision to put college on hold to focus on the disaster in her hometown. She plans to complete her degree in the fall.

The sisters are passionate about their work with La Luz Center. The nonprofit was founded in 1985 to help a largely transient population of seasonal workers. It has shifted into a community resource, mainly serving Latinos in Sonoma Valley, including families with solid roots in the area.

When Angie and Sandy were young girls, their family received help from La Luz Center. They said their parents arrived in the United States from Mexico in the mid-1970s as undocumented immigrants.

Angie is the oldest of seven children, all born in Sonoma. They learned from their parents to give back to the community. Their parents volunteered at La Luz Center, as did Sandy and Angie during their youth. Sandy also served as an intern there when she was earning her bachelor’s degree at Sonoma State University.

“This was the organization that originally helped them, and now it was coming full circle,” Hernandez said. “They were here leading the effort.”

The women are proud of their work at the center, but they credit the entire team - staff, board members, community partners, sponsors and volunteers. As catastrophic and heartbreaking as the fire losses were, the sisters say the outpouring of support was inspiring.

Sandy oversaw the $1.2 million in disbursements that assisted 913 individuals and reached 3,306 families. Monies for funding and services included $750,000 from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, which was established by local organizations and individuals including Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg,

Sandy established a screening protocol that offered each applicant 30 minutes with an advocate, and then calculated and verified individual needs. The process extended for six months, with Sandy working with other intake staff to complete the project.

“Everyone’s story had similarities, but they were different,” Sandy said. Some could provide little documentation.

“It was difficult once we got to the funding part. We try to stay hopeful so we can help as many people as we can,” she said. Not one person was turned away. Many were directed to other agencies and resources for additional support.

La Luz re-established a microloan program funded by Tipping Point of San Francisco and the Latino Community Foundation, allowing those impacted by the fires to restart their businesses or pursue new economic ventures. Sandy’s idea for starting a staffing agency developed into a partnership with Santa Rosa Junior College, the Sonoma County Office of Education and other consortium partners to establish the Building Trades Training Program. The program teaches basic construction skills and safety procedures for those entering the building trades.

Today there is a focus on resilience.

Working with the San Francisco-based Latino Community Foundation’s NorCal Wildfire Just Recovery campaign, La Luz and other North Bay programs aiding Latinos are dedicated to programs, policies and initiatives related to civic engagement, employment sustainment and affordable housing, among other efforts.

The foundation worked with La Luz, UpValley Family Centers in Napa Valley and the North Bay Organizing Project to develop the three phase relief-recovery-resilience effort. It raised $1.5 million for North Bay wildfire recovery, long-term resilience and civic engagement for the future of the Latino community. Grant funding from the foundation ultimately helps with long-term strategies for change, reaching far beyond initial charitable assistance.

“We’re not just giving money away, we’re helping,” Hernandez said. Angie and Sandy have repeatedly shared that message, he said.

The women are addressing mental health needs, strengthening community partnerships (ranging from the YWCA to the Transcendence Theatre Company), spearheading leadership efforts and looking toward mobilizing the Latino vote and participation in the upcoming Census.

“Even if you aren’t documented, you can count and make a difference,” said Angie, who is working on several outreach projects for inclusion with the census and at the polls. She’s managed to tackle her many projects while still coordinating the center’s popular Cinco de Mayo celebration that draws thousands of people to the Sonoma Plaza.

The Sanchez sisters’ many efforts also included enrolling 200 children in summer camps offered through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley. “With it comes a year-long membership you get to utilize beyond summer,” Sandy said.

Through their outreach and work with partnering agencies, the sisters have expanded their community-building efforts. Sandy now serves on the board of Sonoma Overnight Support, a nonprofit helping the homeless and hungry in Sonoma Valley; Angie is a Sonoma County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board member.

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