Petaluma teen a powerhouse during Sonoma County wildfire disaster
Looking back now, “it’s all kind of hazy,” says Paige Williams. “When you were at the shelter, you’d think it was Tuesday and someone would say, ‘Nope, it’s Thursday.’”
Now she’s back to her weekly ballet lessons and daily piano sessions practicing Beethoven.
But only a few weeks ago, the 15-year-old high school sophomore was pulling 19-hour shifts at the Veterans Memorial Building in Petaluma, which was converted into a makeshift shelter and sanctuary for fire evacuees fleeing flames to the north.
The day after fires broke out in Sonoma County, she and her father, Adrian Williams, bought a dozen cots to donate to the Cavenagh Recreation Center in Petaluma. Their next stop was the Vets Building.
“We were just going to ask about what supplies they needed, but they actually needed more help,” she remembers. “So we ended up stepping in and staying late. It turned into multiple days and weeks on end of almost living there.”
The first day, she passed out water, put away folding chairs and tried to make sure evacuees were well taken care of.
“I kind of walked in blind, but it felt natural once I was in it.”
Inspired to do more, the next morning she returned at 6 a.m. and the guy working the front desk told her she could take over his shift. “I ended up staying there for 12 hours and came back the next day,” she said.
Soon Williams began taking on leadership roles, designating donations, organizing volunteer schedules, lining up transport for people in need and initiating searches for specific supplies.
“Sometimes it would be like, ‘Oh my god, we’re out of pants!’ and I would make as many calls as it needed.”
Her work ethic and high spirits not only inspired evacuees, but also fellow volunteers.
“She’s a rock star and the glue that holds us together,” said fellow volunteer Donna Lundstrom, a longtime psychiatric nurse who worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
One night might be calm and the next “you’d get 50 people in 15 minutes. And then someone would say, ‘We’ve got a bus full of people from Sonoma Acres Assisted Living and they need a whole room all to themselves.’ And we’d say, ‘We’ll see what we can do.’”
Williams bonded with several families who lost everything, spending valuable time with many elderly evacuees, especially a woman who carried a parrot on her shoulder.
“The evacuees hardly shed a tear,” she remembers. “They might have a weak moment and then they were back on their feet. When people left, we were sad to see them go, as selfish as that sounds.”
Over the long haul, she put in 170 hours, working every day until the shelter closed two weeks later on Oct. 21. At 15, it was unlike any experience she’s ever had.
“This changed the game for me, I’ve never been more outgoing in my life. I learned a lot about how to talk to people and how to manage myself while managing others. Also, I kind of learned about staying on your feet no matter what’s coming at you and no matter how bad things look, it’s going to be OK.”
Now, as the holidays approach, she’s grateful for her own family “because I think of all the people who won’t be able to enjoy the holidays and gather in the same spots they used to.”
Back in school, doing independent study at Valley Oaks alternative school and taking an honors class at Petaluma High School, “I’m still kind of shocked what happened. I helped at the shelter through its closing day, but it’s over now.”
“Out of everything that happened, I was surprised at how the community came together and everyone lent a hand. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”