For 28 years, Pastor George Russell and his wife Fran have been providing leadership to the congregation at New Hope Assembly of God Church in Cotati in a myriad of ways, accomplishing their mission of reaching people who are hurting in the community they serve. Now more than ever, after the fires, the community needs a lot of help. The Russells, with the support of their congregation and community, have been able to provide a lot of assistance to fire victims – both in terms of material needs through starting a free store as well as emotional support.
“The good thing about it is that people realize they’re not alone,” says Pastor George Russell. “Typically in our society people don’t know their neighbors. So what this has done is help people understand that people really do care and that there is a much bigger level of compassion than a lot of people think. We are able to let people know that we really do care about them and their situation and circumstance and that they are not alone. I think that’s probably one of the most helpful things beyond just the day to day physical needs, is to help people understand there’s a much larger community that really does care about them.”
During the first night of the fires, the Russells went to the church at 3:30 a.m. to open it up to evacuees. 15 people showed up who were all fed breakfast at the church in the morning. Two of those people ended up losing their homes. Almost immediately afterwards, people began to drop off supplies – everything from water and food, to toiletries and sheets and towels. On Oct. 13, Fairfield-based Encore Glass delivered seven pallets of supplies and gift cards. This prompted the Russell’s to open a free store to give away necessities to fire victims.
“People have been coming in and getting what they need, which has been really wonderful,” says Pastor George Russell.
“The fun thing is, is that we haven’t even asked for anything, it just keeps coming,” says Fran Russell. “We keep saying, ‘after all this stuff goes, we’re going to stop.’ And then we get a shipment. God is in control and when he wants us to stop we’ll stop. The donations will stop. But its been incredible to see how this has transpired because it’s nothing that we have strived for. We’re just hands extended to reach out to those in need, and happy to do it.”
At first the store was open three times a week, then twice a week and now it is open every Saturday and will continue to do so until it is no longer needed.
“There have been all kinds of free stores open all through the area but now they’re shrinking,” says Fran Russell. “The volunteer pool is shrinking because they don’t feel there’s enough need anymore, but the need hasn’t even started. Because now people that have lost their homes are coming forward out of the fog they’ve been in and saying ‘we need help now’. Last Saturday we had 18 families come. We were able to help them with food and clothing and toiletries.”
The church is now partnering with an organization called Rise Above the Ash, which is coordinated by the Crozat Family Foundation and CDRT (Community and Disaster Response Team). Now, when people come to the church with certain needs, volunteers can sign them up through that organization, they are assigned a case worker and are then able to get products the church doesn’t necessarily have. Rise Above the Ash estimates that it will continue these services for three to five years.
In her role as International Student Placement Coordinator for Sonoma County, Fran heard about many of the international students at Sonoma State University who had no place to go when the whole campus evacuated in the first week of the fire. Fran took in 10 students at the church and was able to house and feed them until they could return to campus. Her connections through International Student Placement also helped the church get even more donations to add to the free store.
“This next weekend on the 9th I’m getting a shipment of supplies from Los Altos,” says Fran Russell. “The company I work for is International Student Placement Services. The director put a word out to families in San Jose and different places saying ‘our ISP coordinator in Santa Rosa has a free store if you’d like to contribute.’ So on Saturday I’m getting things from them.”
Besides the immediate need, the Russells have hosted foreign exchange students in their home intermittently over the last 38 years.
The Russell’s aren’t new to the idea of giving to those less fortunate. For as long as Pastor Russell has led the congregation at New Hope church, Fran makes soup for any elderly congregants that are ill.
“I’ll make a huge pot of soup and deliver it,” says Fran Russell, “especially during flu season.
She also gives out meal containers to their congregation and encourages people to fill them with leftovers. Those meals are then frozen, stored at the church kitchen, and given to any hungry or homeless that come looking for help.
In addition, over the last two years, the church has created “blessing bags” – survival bags filled with water, granola bars, socks, and other necessities – that they give to the fire and police department to give out to anyone they meet on the street who they feel could use them. Fran estimates that about 60 blessing bags have been distributed so far.
In general, New Hope church reaches out to personnel in the local fire and police departments, and schools. They have raised money to purchase school supplies for Thomas Page Elementary School and most recently made pumpkin pies and gave Starbucks gift cards to 16 police department staff, three pumpkin pies and coffee beans for the fire department and gave 32 individual pumpkin pies to teachers and staff at Thomas Page Academy.
“There’s so many negative things that have happened towards police and first responders,” says George Russell. “We just tell them we’re doing this because we want them to be successful in our community.”
To help in their outreach activities, donations can be made to New Hope Church, P.O. Box 297, Cotati, CA 94931. To donate supplies to the free store, call the church office at 707-795-4889. Church services are held every Sunday at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. and their children’s program, for children three years old through 6th grade, is held Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m.