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Building Community: Displaced Coffey Park fire survivors gather for special events

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

As long shadows fell upon the dirt lot, a rabbi, two wildfire survivors and a smattering of well-wishers lifted plastic wine glasses and toasted each other, “L’chaim,” meaning “to life.”

Later, the Rabbi Mendel Wolvovsky raised to his lips a shofar, a serpentine ram’s horn from which he gave a series of high-pitched blasts. The sound amounted to a wake-up call, he said, a reminder that what happened in the past need not determine the future and that “tomorrow can always be a better day.”

Wolvovsky, rabbi of the Sonoma County Chabad Jewish Center, led the blessing ceremony Monday evening for Barbara Winestock and Scott La Bonte, who hope soon to rebuild the home they lost last fall to the devastating wildfire in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. Such an occasion, Wolvovsky said, calls for coming together.

“We should never do these alone,” he said.

Eleven months after the destruction of Coffey Park, many who lost 1,300 single-family homes there and remain scattered throughout the North Bay still find ways to come together. Fire survivors from the neighborhood last fall formed the recovery group Coffey Strong. Since then, they have turned out in large numbers for a New Year’s Eve gathering, a night in March at the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County and a summer picnic at Howarth Park.

Smaller Coffey Park gatherings also are taking place this summer. Some, like this week’s blessing of the Winestock/La Bonte rebuild on Kona Place, mark special occasions. And some, like “Whine Wednesday,” are regular events.

The latter gathering will occur this evening on Scarlet Place, a cul-de-sac off Hopper Avenue.

The weekly event began this summer after fire survivor Tricia Woods contemplated the destruction in Lake County from the Mendocino complex wildfires, the largest in state history.

Woods, a middle school teacher who last October lived through the state’s most destructive wildfires — claiming 40 lives and 6,000 homes — said news of the new blazes “greatly upset me.” She wanted to vent and “who better to do that with than my neighbors at Coffey Park?”

Thus, “Whine Wednesday” was born. Neighbors gather about 6 p.m. on Scarlet Place.

It’s a family-friendly event, Woods said, where occasionally there’s a Wiffle ball game, or people just talk and chill with their favorite beverage.

Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of Coffey Strong, said the gathering sometimes attracts 30 people.

He appreciates the time together because it’s hard to stay connected when so many residents are living in temporary housing around the region.

Despite the challenge of distance, he said, Coffey Park neighbors lean on one another and have become closer through the shared tragedy.

“They get you,” Okrepkie said. “They get that part of your life.”

For Woods, the weekly event reinforces the strong community that has been built after the fatal fires. “That’s the silver lining that came out of this,” she said.

Another small gathering occurred last week on View Court east of Coffey Lane. Residents for seven of the court’s 16 lots gathered to mark the groundbreaking for the first of five homes that will be built there by a single builder.

The neighbors ate snacks and sipped wine and champagne, resident June Clark said. She and her husband, Jamie, own the first lot where work has begun by American Pacific Builders of Santa Rosa. Many of the residents have lived on the court more than three decades, Clark said.

They have bonded through the rebuilding effort and plan to gather again when grading gets underway for the fifth lot.

“It gives you hope,” Clark said.

Meanwhile, on Monday at Kona Place, fire survivors Winestock and La Bonte spoke with gratitude for all Rabbi Wolvovsky had done for them.

La Bonte said the rabbi called after the fire and “was the first to say, ‘What do you need? How can I help you?’ ”

Winestock said Wolvovsky quickly helped the couple find an available hotel room. Later, she said, “he delivered a truck full of furniture.”

During his blessing, the rabbi said the fire survivors are teaching the rest of the community about moving forward and striving to build a better life.

“We get inspiration from you, from those that are rebuilding after such devastation,” he told the couple.

Now, he said, Winestock and La Bonte have the opportunity to build a home “where all your heart’s desires and prayers are answered by God.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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