Who We Are in the Face of Disaster
As far as I could tell, Michael Ent, pastor of The Living Word, a small chapel tucked in a nondescript cluster of buildings off of Novato Blvd, and church member Erika Dachauer, who is also a trained social worker, had not slept for days. On Monday I met them just after they had dragged a FIRE RELIEF sandwich board sign onto the street in front of the church, and by Wednesday afternoon when I stopped by to drop off some laundered towels, they were overseeing the creation of a bustling village for fire evacuees, including a mobile food station and mobile shower station, a long row of meal tables, play structures and toys and books and balls for children, tables and shelves full of sorted and labeled clothing, toiletries, sundries, diapers and medications.
I handed over the bag of towels and looked around. A small girl with wide brown eyes peeked her head out of the doorway of the chapel. A mother and her two teenage daughters, three of about 20 volunteers on site, sorted and labeled clothes. Nearby another man unloaded shelving from his car. According to Erika Dachauer this volunteer had rushed down to Home Depot, explained the situation and came back with donated shelving.
“It’s amazing. Everybody in this community is bringing something,” said Dachauer as behind her a group of children commenced a gleeful game of foursquare. “Everyone arrives with something different to offer, something needed.”
This is the story that played out in churches and synagogues, on school and fair grounds, at Sears Point Raceway and the Pt. Reyes Dance Palace, at the Marin Center and the Petaluma Community center and countless other shelters, in lots and community rooms across Marin, Sonoma, and Napa over this week of raging wildfires. Through the thick grey days of smoke and endless waves of heart-wrenching news, the character of our cohesive community, hundreds of thousands of individuals, mostly strangers to each other before this disaster, came into clear focus.
There are innumerable clichés about adversity, and I don’t think any of them can do service to the tremendous real-life beauty of human altruism. This past week we in the North Bay have seen up close the heart-fueled actions of citizens of all ages, races, religions and walks of life, and have been reminded, again and again of the essential goodness of humans. It has been difficult in an era dominated by stories of a “divided nation,” burdened by mistrust and anger, to remember who we are here on the ground.
Who we are is the army of volunteers who appeared, the moment word of the fire spread, showing up at churches and congregations and community centers and schools and fairgrounds to create landing pads, these welcoming villages, temporary shelters and donation collection stations that went up overnight to clothe and feed and comfort those devastated by the fire. We are the individuals who and immediately signed up for 4 or 8 hour shifts, welcoming evacuees, orchestrating meals, sorting donations, setting up bedding, comforting the elderly, playing with children. We are the volunteers who have worn super-hero costumes to delight those children. We are volunteers who came back to work 8 hour volunteer shifts, day after day. We are the hundreds of Marin and Sonoma and Napa high school students who, when school was canceled due to smoke, donned face masks and spent their days off of school organizing and cleaning and sorting and delivering at shelters, and also reading and playing games, bringing joy to evacuated children. We are the animal lovers who drove directly to Sebastapol or Santa Rosa or Richmond or Novato to pick up terrified dogs and cats. We are the grandmother who went out and purchased pet carriers because she knew they were in short supply, and so many horse people who dropped everything to drive north with their trailers to help evacuate animals. We are those who brought large animals back to their homes and will house and comfort these creatures for a long while, until they are safe to go home. We are the team of chefs who made gourmet sandwiches for the firefighters and National Guard, with baguettes donated by the baker and cheese donated by the cheesemaker in the kitchen donated by the restauranteur… the so many chefs across the North Bay, including some whose own homes were in peril, served hundreds of gourmet meals for those who needed sustenance the most. We are the farmers who delivered oysters and fresh greens and cheeses to Marconi Center where dozens of families ate the best shelter food ever. We are the grocer and his son who packed up vans full of groceries, non-perishables to deliver to shelters and food banks. We are the elementary school teacher who helped her young students brainstorm to come up with a plan: all the ways they could support the families in need. We are the art teacher who opened up her studio to fire victims to lift their spirits making art, and the yoga teachers who donated mats and classes, for both evacuees and first responders. We are the technologists who are offering free data retrieval from scorched smart phones and computers. We are the Boy Scouts who collected donations at the drive-through coffee shop. We are the seamstress who handmade eye shades for evacuees, knowing they’ll likely sleep on a cot in a big noisy room. We are the group of college students, living on a student budget, who dug into their wallets for money to donate to a now-enormous fire relief fund for families. We are the hundreds who have opened up their homes and have welcomed the displaced, and are gathering supplies from their community to help get these families back up on their feet. We are the families who have offered their second homes to those in need. We are the therapists who volunteer at the shelters. And the massage therapists and acupuncturists who are doing the same for evacuees and first responders. We are the local hotel manager who has made his luxury hotel rooms in the city available to fire victims. We are the children who bake cookies and pies and hang signs across Sonoma and Napa thanking the first responders. We are the local firefighters who have ramped up their annual Bikes For Kids campaign to support kids who have lost everything. We are the girls’ lacrosse team who puts together and delivers 100s of bags of donated beauty basics, donated by a local beauty supply distributor. We are the artists and clothing and jewelry designers who have created a website to sell art pieces, all proceeds donated to fire relief (Californiafirehelp.com). We are the volunteers who work in local fields to harvest the produce to take to the food bank which then makes the meals to deliver to evacuation centers. We are the pizzeria that sent pizzas out to shelters and to fire fighters, and the restaurants that have opened their doors to feed the first responders and the National Guard.
We are, so significantly, the local police officers and fire fighters who left their own families and homes to protect us, their community, to go into rather than away from the walls of flames, and worked without sleep in those first treacherous days for up to 40 hours straight.
And we are also the evacuees, who sat at folding tables and shared a meal in the evening as a strange orange sun set above, knowing only that no one could go home, and that some had no home to go home to. We are the children, all ages and sizes, playing games in the parking lots of the churches and schools and fairgrounds, wondering what will come next in their lives, but resilient…laughing and being silly amidst it all, leaping on the chance to play four-square or kickball or scooter in circles with a whole bunch of other new kids, and then sleepover, a little bit like camping.
We are all of this, and so much more.
Who we are here on the ground is all the people who have responded to this overwhelming disaster with not only deepest empathy, but also with meaningful and creative actions. We stick our necks out for each other. We do anything we can to alleviate each other’s suffering, to make each other feel more comforted and more hopeful.
This fire is a terrible thing. A truly terrible thing. And in its' aftermath we have been reminded that when you get up close, really close, we are so many good people…and maybe not so different after all.
Photos (right, middle) by Kirsten Jones Neff
Photo (bottom right) of Novato High Girls Lacrosse teammates packing up basic beauty supplies donated by The Cricket Company, photo by Suzie Clark