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29 November 2017 Written by  By Trish O’ Connell
Published in December 2017 Articles

Most of us, I imagine, were touched in some personal way in October by the firestorms that raged through Napa and Sonoma Counties.

The catastrophe dealt me a personal blow because a number of my dear friends lost everything in the Santa Rosa fires. It had already been a difficult time for me because I had plane tickets and reservation for Las Vegas to celebrate my friends’ 60th birthday on the day following the October Las Vegas shootings. It was impossible to carry on with life-as-usual while so many lives had been destroyed, so we canceled the event.

Just a little over a week later the fire reports began coming in. The next week a channel opened for me into the heart of the disaster. My Santa Rosa friend Kirstie Franceschi, who is married to the Assistant Chief for the Forestville Fire Department, contacted me on Monday with news about the firestorm taking place near her Santa Rosa home and shared the grim news that her Santa Rosa home was threatened by all the flames, and she was being evacuated. 

Kirstie later called me from the Forestville firehouse, where she had taken refuge. She became my channel of information regarding the conditions on the ground and each day we would have 20 to 30 phone conversations about what was happening and what could be done for our Santa Rosa friends. On Monday afternoon I decided that I had to reach out to those people with something stronger than mere sympathy.

By the next day, Tuesday, the magnitude of the disaster became clear, so that morning I put out SOS appeals in an effort to provide clothing and supplies to help the victims. Kirstie provided specific information about friends and their friends who had lost homes and needed help. She gave me information about seven families we knew whom the flames had made homeless, including clothing sizes for each family member and photos of the children — about 20 individuals in all. 

We set out on a program to help them. It was a small effort considering that 5,800 structures in Santa Rosa alone had been destroyed and thousands of families had been affected. However, these seven families were people we knew. We needed to do what we could to help them survive their ordeal. One of our displaced friends said to Kirstie, “Tell Trish I’m okay. I had 12 shirts at the dry cleaners and bought jeans and tennis shoes at Target. Let’s focus on those who need help more than myself.” 

Friends, family members, acquaintances, and even strangers responded to the SOS by sending new clothing in appropriate sizes they had purchased for the family members. Cash donations were coming via messenger, FedEx Overnight, and checks dropped on my desk. By Wednesday afternoon I had $2,200 in cash and certificates, plus innumerable bags filled with new clothing and with gift receipts. In four days we got more than $5,000 with donations as small as ten dollars and as high as $300 donated by former clients, friends, friends-of-friends, and strangers. A client I hadn’t seen in years gave me $200. 

By Thursday morning Kirstie was sharing with me desperate needs for clothing and pet food. I learned that many of the displaced people needed sweatshirts, so I ran to Old Navy and bought 30 sweatshirts. I actually ended up with 31 sweatshirts because a woman saw me standing in line and asked if the sweatshirts were for the fire victims. She was carrying a sweatshirt she intended to return, and ended up throwing it on the cart. A week later a woman sent me a picture of a teenage girl with a beaming smile wearing one of the sweatshirts. The picture had a caption, “Thank you for putting a smile on my daughter’s face.” 

I went to Santa Rosa on Thursday and spent $1,700 from the funds I had collected purchasing clothes and backpacks at Target and Costco in Santa Rosa, plus pallets of dog food, cat food, and kitty litter from Pet Food Express. Homeless pets were a huge problem, so we made a donation to the humane society and to a local animal sanctuary named Brighthaven. I then spent Thursday, Friday, and a half-day Saturday in the education room at the Forestville Fire Department sorting and stacking the items for distribution. A fellow realtor, Michelle Jogopulos, had donated ten cases of water. All ten cases were immediately picked up by wives of the fire fighters who distributed them to road crews and people on the fire lines.

I cried every day during that time in grief over the magnitude of human suffering. However, I was sometimes shedding tears of joy at the selfless and generous responses of so many people. For example, my friend Carrie Michael came in with her three young children who emptied the contents of their piggy banks on my desk and gave every cent of their $22.06 savings for the fire victims. I got a manicure with my longtime pedicure gal, Kathy Nguyen at Em’s Nails. As I was walking to my car, Kathy came running after me with tears running down her cheeks. “I want to help,” she said. She reached into her pocket and handed me $43.00, which was all the tips she had received that day. A visitor in my office simply opened his wallet and dropped all his money on my desk.

When I approached the counter for a dermatology appointment at Dr. Beer’s Balfour Dermatology & Day Spa, I told the people behind the desk about my efforts to help the fire victims. “I know this is an awkward request,” I said. “Do you have any samples I could take to them?” I imagined they would give me a small sack of lotions, but following the appointment I walked out with seven bags — one for each of the seven families — filled with samples of soaps, lotions, toilet paper, and chocolates. I walked to the car with tears of gratitude flowing down my face. 

Our relatively small efforts hardly made a dent in the enormous challenges of that disaster. I saw woeful people walking around like zombies. Their houses were gone together with all their photos, baby pictures, wedding albums, and family keepsakes. Their places of employment were destroyed. Their kids’ schools had burned down. Small details in some of the stories were heart breaking. One of the seven families not only lost their home; their folks also lost their home and escaped with only a laundry basket of belongings. The parents own a restaurant in Cotati named Mai’s Vietnamese. A patron wrote that she saw the mom drop her house key into the trash. “I guess I won’t need this anymore,” she said. 

The fires are now old news. However, the victims are a long way from recovery and I’m a long way from being finished offering whatever help I can. I am in charge of my own schedule and have some listings in Santa Rosa, so I continue going up there every week, or more often. 

We have started a wishing tree for children and their siblings who attend Hidden Valley Elementary. We would like to reach out to all 200 students who have lost their homes, but are beginning with a project to reach out to 50 who were nominated by their teachers. Each tree will have cards on them displaying the names and ages of one of the children and any siblings. Between November 27 and December 11 people can go to Staci Calegari at Rake Salon, 240 Oak Street, Linda Owle at Resolutions4Life Fitness, 550 Harvest Park Drive, or at my Intero office at the Streets of Brentwood to offer help. 

The experience changed me forever. For one thing, I never before attempted to raise a single penny for anything in my life. More than that, however, for years I have been seeking for some direction about how I could seriously give back. As a result of my experience with the fires, and watching the response of some desperately needy people to assistance, I’ve decided to start a 501(c)(3) tax-free foundation funded by a contribution from each of my commissions to help people in our community cope with some disaster. We can’t fix everything, but we can give whatever help we can to people in need, one family at a time. 

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