La Luz Center provides support for Sonoma Valley fire victims
The fires that devastated much of Sonoma Valley brought not only disorientation and hardship, but also an outpouring of support for the Hispanic community – which has seen over $1 million pour in from across the country to La Luz alone, and as much as five times that for the county as a whole.
“It was a horrible disaster but it brought out the best in people,” said Marcelo Defreitas, board president of La Luz, where the Fire Relief Fund was set up in the wake of the October calamity to provide assistance to fire victims.
On Oct. 10, two days after the fires began, a key group met at La Luz to discuss ways the community could address the emergency needs. At the time Sonoma was isolated from the surrounding community – Highway 12, Bennet Valley Road and even Highway 37 were closed – but Defreitas, 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin and her aide Jennifer Thompson, Claudia Mendoza-Carruth and Veronica Vencez of La Luz, and a few others met to evaluate response options.
Supervisor Gorin, noting that she had already been working with the La Luz Center and the county to explore additional funding, recognized the critical needs that the fire created.
“The firestorms in early October greatly increased the service demand of La Luz and other service providers in the Valley,” said Gorin. “They destroyed housing and closed businesses for several weeks. Small businesses and their employees are struggling, but undocumented workers are fearful of accessing emergency relief services because of the fear of deportation.”
At that meeting, recalled Thompson, “we conceived the Springs Food Pantry in the Vineyard Shopping Center, hot meals two times per day at La Luz Center, and arranged for 300 meal kits to be distributed at two sites in the Springs at 5 p.m. that day.”
La Luz thus became a crucial player in the self-help efforts of the Sonoma Valley Hispanic community in the days immediately following the fires.
“In the first few weeks, we delivered 2,000 meals for the community and gave away about five tons of supplies, helping about 700 families and 2,500 individuals,” said Defreitas. He said that as of this week some $250,000 has already gone into the community, and with a recent grant from Redwood Credit Union for $750,000, the support continues to do its job.
It's not only food and supplies that people need, Defreitas said, but money.
Many members of the Sonoma Valley labor force work in agriculture, as housekeepers, in food service, landscaping or any number of other jobs, their livelihood co-dependent on their more wealthy employers.
For almost three weeks in October – high season for crush and wine tourism – they were unable to work. And that's where La Luz, the Redwood Credit Union and the county-wide UndocuFund.org have come to their assistance.
UndocuFund was started in Santa Rosa as a partnership with three area grassroots organizations – the Graton Day Labor Center, North Bay Organizing Project and North Bay Jobs with Justice.
Their goal is to raise $5 million this year to “give a meaningful level of assistance” to individuals and families to help recovery; by mid-November, donations had reached $2 million.
“There are people who lost everything - possessions, homes and jobs,” Christy Lubin of UndocuFund said. “Most of these people aren't going anywhere else to get help.”
UndocuFund has received donations from all over the country, including from the California Endowment and Isabel Allende Foundation, she said. Lubin said 100 percent of the donations go directly to the fire victims.
Though unrelated, the two efforts, La Luz and UndocuFund, share a common motivation: Many members of the Hispanic community, a significant portion of the county's labor force, may not be eligible for federal assistance through FEMA and similar agencies. Yet the fear of deportation should not prevent people who need help from receiving it, say social advocates.
“Most of the people we help are people who cannot qualify for FEMA or any other organization,” said Defrietas, but La Luz also provides navigation services for those who might qualify. “We have one family who has one baby out of six people who is a citizen, so they can apply for FEMA.”
Much of the support that La Luz received came as a result of an interview that the organization's executive director Juan Hernandez did on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman's news program on Pacifica Radio.
“With the status quo in this new administration, everybody wants to help the immigrants,” said Defreitas. He spoke of dinner parties in New York that raised money for relief, and a young boy who donated the $300 he got for his 11th birthday to the fire fund, “because he wanted to do something.”
In addition to the ongoing distribution of food and other supplies, at present La Luz is helping 18 families who lost their homes in the fires.
One such family, Rodrigo and Glafira Sanchez, recently received a sizeable grant from La Luz to cover expenses they could not meet because Rodrigo could not work during the fire emergency.
Their story is not unique.
“We have a vetting system,” said Defreitas. “We figure out what people need, and based on every case people get different amounts. We try to assist with anything we can, especially rental assistance.”
After meeting emergency food and rental-assistance needs, La Luz's support efforts turned to practical, day-to-day care. Gift cards to local supermarkets and other stores, donated diapers and clothing, even Thanksgiving baskets contributed by Girl Scouts of Menlo Park, were distributed last week.
“The silver lining of the destruction in October means that funders are understanding the needs of the community in a far more comprehensive way,” said Gorin.
“It is not enough just to donate to the fire victims; supporting long-term services and capacity is essential. The community needs will be with us for years to come.”
The Press Democrat's Eloisa Ruano Gonzalez contributed to this report. Contact Christian at email@example.com.