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Massive Santa Rosa food giveaway underscores community need after evacuations, blackouts

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They had served more than 1,000 people needing food assistance on short notice a day earlier, so when community organizers saw a long line of cars streaming into the Santa Rosa Fire Training Center on Friday in search of donated groceries, no one was surprised.

But the demand — double that of the day before — provided sobering confirmation of the community’s heightened financial need in the wake of the past week’s fire-related disruptions, particularly among those already living on the margins.

From spoiled food to lost income to unanticipated evacuation costs, the financial toll was severe enough to raise fears that some could fall into sudden crisis — especially where people went a week without work right before first-of-the-month rent came due.

“This shows just how vulnerable our community is,” Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer for Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, a sponsor of the food giveaway, said as she gazed at hundreds of people in line, waiting for help beneath the harsh sun. “When you’re out of work for even two, three days, people cannot afford that, when you’re living on the edge. And this is evidence of that. These people wouldn’t be here and wouldn’t brave these lines if they didn’t really need to.”

The two-day effort was organized in partnership with the city of Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401, Redwood Empire Food Bank and Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County.

It was among numerous campaigns to help low-income residents put at financial risk by large-scale evacuations during the Kincade fire and preemptive blackouts that closed businesses and put broad swaths of the county off-limits. Many were put out of work and forced to leave their communities. Many also lost food stores when their freezers and refrigerators were without power for days.

“This is a godsend,” one man named Jesús said while waiting in line with his wife and 17-year-old son, one of five siblings who live with the couple at their home in Windsor, not far from where flames threatened the town Sunday.

He works at a dental lab, and his wife is a medical assistant, but neither had worked all week because of the evacuations and power shut-off. Whether they will get back wages was still in question.

On top of that, they had to throw out everything from the two refrigerators they use to keep food for five hungry kids, aged 10 to 19.

“They eat a lot,” their father said, “and they know where the food is.”

Santa Rosa Junior College preschool employee Dena Timmons, 40, said she’d been away from work all week, as well, the center closed along with the college. Meanwhile, right before the fire started, her cat had been struck by a car and had to have a leg amputated — an unexpected hardship.

Though she was not required to evacuate from her Rincon Valley home, it had become increasingly difficult to stay at home with no electricity and with food running out. Then her daughter became ill after eating some food Timmons had stored in a work freezer she thought would be OK, and they decided their only option was to seek refuge and support at a Petaluma evacuation shelter for several days before returning home Thursday to bare cupboards.

“This means a whole, whole lot,” Timmons said, sorting through a box of nonperishable foods and dry storage items. “We have no food, and we have no money. No support. It’s just me. So it does mean a lot.”

The food distribution was made possible through individual donations of food from community members, some of which was still being dropped off even as food was being handed out on Friday. About 70 community volunteers also were involved in directing traffic, running carts and boxes, sorting food and replenishing tables.

The American Red Cross chipped in with donations of milk in the final hours of Friday’s event, Holmes said.

She said more than 30,000 pounds of food was given away to at least 3,160 people over two days.

Rod Bowman, pastor at Westview Christian Church in Santa Rosa, said he and his wife had been helping several neighbors from their mobile home park get through the evacuation period and were extremely grateful for the community’s generosity.

“Beyond just the food,” Bowman said, “it’s the cooperation and encouragement we get from everybody coming together. That really lifts the spirits of everybody.”

Community Action Partnership distributed $20,000 in gift cards worth $50-$200, working from a $50,000 grant received from the Community Foundation Sonoma County’s Resilience Fund, which was formed after the 2017 North Bay firestorm to support long-term recovery needs.

“But I think this is a small part of what’s going on out there,” said Mary Watts, CAP deputy director. “Most people we serve live paycheck-to-paycheck.”

CAP, a leading partner in the county Rebuilding Our Community Resources Center, will continue to distribute gift cards during regular business hours at the center, 141 Stony Circle, Suite 210 in Santa Rosa, as well as at the Kincade fire Local Assistance Center set to open Monday in the Healdsburg Community Center, 1557 Healdsburg Ave.

Gift cards may be donated in person at the CAP Sonoma offices at 141 Stony Circle, Suite 210, in Santa Rosa. Monetary donations be made online at capsonoma.org.

Community Foundation Sonoma County also is accepting donations for its response to the Kincade fire at sonomacf.org.

Additional donations maybe made to the Redwood Empire Food Bank at refb.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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