“How Can I Help?” - How To Best Help Those Affected by the Northern California Fires

For a week now, the fires in Northern California have raged, leaving behind a trail of devastation and heartbreak. Each time we seem to get a respite, a new fire starts or an existing one expands rapidly, causing large-scale evacuations and panic. Thousands have lost their homes and all their belongings. Many more are in limbo, waiting – hoping – for the mandatory evacuations to lift, so they can return home. Hundreds of people are still missing, and at least 40 people so far have died in the fires.

As a native of Sonoma County who works in social services, this devastating firestorm has hit me hard. I have been very fortunate to be safe and out of the path of the fires, however, many of my dear friends and colleagues have been evacuated, and/or lost everything. Some of my favorite restaurants and businesses in Santa Rosa have been burned; and I realize that our beautiful County of Sonoma will never be the same again.

Many not directly impacted by the fires feel powerless to help those who have lost so much. What do you say to someone who lost their home in the fires? How can you provide support or aid in this excruciating time?

Many friends, desperate to help, have asked me: “How can I help?”

I wish there were a simple answer.

Early last week, evacuation and distribution centers popped up all over the North Bay, and many concerned individuals quickly mobilized to donate toiletries, water, food and other goods.

As the Director of Programs at COTS, a non-profit organization that serves people experiencing homelessness in Sonoma County, I have always been amazed by the generosity of our incredible community.

I have also seen the immense effort and manpower it takes to process, sort and organize goods – and how often donated items must be redistributed or even thrown out because they cannot be used.

We must remember that many people right now do not have homes to return to or space to store things, and because of this many evacuation centers are filled  with donations that they may never be able to use.

So... How can I help?

1. Give money.

I know some people prefer to donate supplies rather than money, but remember that money never expires or goes bad, and allows evacuation centers, nonprofits and families the flexibility to buy the things they actually need, when they need them. Even small monetary contributions can make a difference.

To ensure that your money is going where it is most needed and will be best used, donate to vetted well-known organizations or groups. Some suggestions include:

  • Redwood Credit Union North Bay Fire Relief has already raised over $2.5 million and will address short-to-medium term needs – 100% of the funds raised will go directly to those affected by the fires.
  • Sonoma County Resilience Fund from Community Foundation Sonoma County is raising funds to help address the medium-to-long term needs as a result of this fire.
  • Habitat for Humanity’s Rebuild Wine Country is raising funds, 100% of which will go directly to rebuilding the homes lost in the fire.
  • Gofundme : Many individuals and organizations have set up campaigns on gofundme to raise money for those affected by the fires. Note: Gofundme is a great platform, however, since anyone can set up a campaign, I recommend to only donate to people or organizations that you know and trust.

2. Give gift cards.

Gift cards are an option that allow you some control in how the money is spent, while also giving those affected by the fires more flexibility and choice. Below are few recommendations, however, always check first to see what types of gift cards are most needed:

  • Visa gift cards
  • Multi-purpose stores, like Target and Amazon
  • Gas cards
  • Grocery stores
  • Clothing stores
  • Affordable family-friendly restaurants

3. Give food and supplies – but only what is clearly asked for.

Needs are constantly changing, so don’t assume that what an evacuation center or organization was asking for yesterday (or even an hour ago) is up-to-date. Always double check first.

4. Stay engaged – for the long haul.

It will take years to rebuild our community after the worst firestorm in California history has finally receded. And we still may be weeks away from that.

Large-scale disasters like this one usually get a lot of attention in the short-term, but as time goes on, interest and support wanes.

Friends: we are going to need you for the long-haul.

For now, tell your affected friends and loved ones that you love and support them. Offer them a listening ear, and a shoulder to sob on. Post or repost vetted community resources on social media. Show up where volunteers are needed. Donate where you can. But, most importantly, just be there.

And continue to be there when the hype dies down and the press leaves, and people from outside the area stop talking about the city in Northern California called “Santa Rosa.” Be there for us as we rebuild our lives, and our community.

This community is resilient and the support and love for one another is so palpable right now.

I know we will come back stronger than ever. Thank you friends, near and far, for the thoughts, prayers and support. Please keep it up – and join us as we rebuild.

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Jenna Garcia

In addition to Trendeing, Jenna is a program director at a non-profit that works to end the cycle of homelessness and trauma for adults and children. She lives in Sonoma County with her husband and Border Collie and is passionate about helping others find their dignity and voice and promoting open dialog about issues facing our world today.