Coffey Park residents build, strengthen bonds at summer picnic

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Homemade mac and cheese, hot dogs and ripe watermelon brought comfort and normalcy to a small gathering of Coffey Park residents Sunday in Howarth Park.

Organized by the nonprofit Coffey Strong, which holds monthly meetings with the city of Santa Rosa, the summer potluck picnic was just one way these neighbors without a neighborhood have joined together to get to know each other better. They shared stories of their efforts to rebuild homes and lives after last year’s Tubbs fire.

“We try to combine the social with the work,” Steve Rahmn said at the picnic. “We find we have strength in numbers, and this is therapeutic.”

Jeff Okrepie, chairman of the Coffey Strong group, said people enjoy getting together because they’re constantly meeting new neighbors.

“I think aesthetically and demographically the neighborhood will change,” he said. “But emotionally, it will be one of the most connected neighborhoods anywhere.”

In July, Sasha Butler started a monthly walking group for residents to stroll through the northeast Santa Rosa neighborhood now under construction and view the progress together. She expected six people, and about 30 showed up. The next walk will be held at 6 p.m. Aug. 21.

“It’s good to see it together,” Butler said. “Last month, we had a neighbor show up who had never really been back.”

Over time, members of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group have melded together all kinds of expertise — from their own careers as contractors, insurance agents and architects — and then used that knowledge to help rebuild together some of the key features of the neighborhood, such as the perimeter walls lining both sides of Hopper Avenue and the park. The group also reaches out to people who need one-on-one help.

Sharing a common story has made the sprawling, suburban neighborhood seem much smaller.

“In the future, our neighborhood will be much more adhesive,” said Anne Barbour. “The grieving process is the equivalent of a death. We’ve all been angry, irritable and weepy. In this group, we’ve been able to help each other heal.”

Many of the Coffey Park residents expressed hope that the lessons they learned could help others in the state now going through the same kind of losses.

“Hopefully we can give them access to our websites,” Barbour said. “A lot of it was a real grind to find out.”

Alyssa and Nick Belliveau, parents of a 1-year-old baby girl, are living temporarily in a tiny, 500-square-foot house in Sebastopol. However, they spent their anniversary on July 18 enjoying a steak barbecue at their Coffey Park lot with their daughter and their dogs.

The Belliveaus, who were saving to buy a bigger house when the fire hit, decided to rebuild instead, increasing the square footage from 900 to 2,100 square feet. They’re excited to move into their “forever home” and a neighborhood that’s become even more appealing.

Alyssa Belliveau, a sixth-grade teacher at Helen Lehman Elementary, said she always loved their home’s location. It was close to restaurants and town but on a street where you could see all the kids playing on everyone’s lawns.

“The kids had a nice community,” she said. “And now the adults are following suit.”

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