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 at the Movies
On Oct. 17, a week after fire swept across the North Bay, filmmaker John Beck spent the day in Sonoma Valley, visiting support services at St. Leo’s Food Pantry and La Luz under a smoky sky, while emergency aircraft flew overhead.
The resulting online film, “Forgotten Fire Victims,” caught the eye of Rialto Theater manager Ky Boyd, who booked it as a short to accompany features at the Sebastopol theater, as well as at two theaters in the East Bay. It’s also playing at the Summerfield in Santa Rosa, at Sonoma’s Sebastiani Theatre and other Sonoma County theaters.
“It’s a good lesson – all those times as a filmmaker you try to get anyone to get attention. And this time, it happened for all the right reasons,” said Beck. “For me it’s all about this fund.”
You can view the short film online at https://vimeo.com/241267737
You can donate to UndocuFund at undocufund.org/
You can learn more about La Luz Fire Relief Fund at laluzcenter.org/relief.html