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RCU community fund to give $7 million in grants

By: Katherne Minkiewicz
February 16, 2018

The Sonoma County based Redwood Credit Union announced with much excitement earlier this month, that its North Bay Fire Relief Fund will provide $7 million in grants to several nonprofits in Sonoma and the neighboring counties of Napa, Lake and Mendocino County for fire relief efforts. Overall, it’s been calculated that the fund has raised an impressive $31 million for immediate aid for fire victims.

It’s been approximately four months since the massive October firestorm swept through Sonoma County, leveling homes to the ground, burning cars to a crisp and making what were once idyllic tree-lined streets in family neighborhoods unrecognizable. And while progress has been made with the rebuilding process, clearing lots of hazardous debris and accelerating the building permitting process, there is still a long road ahead for fire relief efforts in various facets such as healthcare, housing and financial assistance. 

However, the Redwood Credit Union community fund hopes to make navigating this long road a bit more manageable as it will be distributing grants to over 50 different nonprofits to help support the variety of resources they provide.

“We believe this support of local nonprofits will be significant, in terms of providing much needed and vital services to fire survivors, which in turn will contribute to helping our community begin to heal and recover,” said Board President of RCU Community Fund, Cynthia Negri in a Jan. 31 statement.

Nonprofits in Sonoma County that will receive grant money include Cerces Community Project, COTS, Interfaith Shelter network, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Living Roots Christian Church, Petaluma People’s Services, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Sonoma County Grape Growers, Boys and Girls Club of Sonoma Valley and countless others in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino Counties.

Robin McKenzie, senior vice president of marketing and communications for RCU, said while the $31 million in aid was for immediate aid, the $7 million in grant aid will be centered more towards the immediate and recovery phase of the disaster, the phase in which continuous long term aid is needed for restoration.

“The goal from the very beginning was to support emerging immediate needs of fire survivors. There are typically three key phases of disaster relief… and the first phase is the immediate need relief phase. Every community that goes through earthquakes, fires or floods, there’s an immediate and urgent response that needs to happen and that is typically within the first 120 days and thereafter it turns into more of a mid-term focus,” McKenzie explained. “And since its inception we’ve been focusing towards the immediate phase and helping that community through that first phase. But the next phase is that the RCU will be supporting those groups that are helping our community in the mid and long-term phase.”

When asked how it was decided which nonprofits would receive grants, McKenzie said the board members of the community fund, which include the Press Democrat and Senator Mike McGuire, went through a lengthy process to review the 99 grant applicants. 

“There are a lot of nonprofits serving and continue to serve fire victims and those folks came to us and said hey we need funds to keep doing what we’re doing because we normally provide these services but now we’re providing services at greater levels because of the disaster. So we did an application process and we were able to grant 56 nonprofits,” McKenzie said.

Forget me Not Children’s Services, a nonprofit based at the Santa Rosa Humane Society, offers a post-fire farm therapy program on their three-acre animal farm and gardens and “Teaches young trauma survivors with diagnosis such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, how to value and care for living things, develop respect for all lifeforms and create a compassionate way of behaving and relating to others that is the antithesis of their experience.” 

The program is geared towards school age kids and Carol Rathmann, executive director for Forget Me Not, says the grant will be instrumental in helping to continue this healing program.

“Typically we serve children who have gone through abuse and neglect and generally don’t serve the general public but we thought it would be good to open our doors to the families who lost their homes. We also wanted to scholarship kids a summer program this summer for our overnight camp for families who lost their home,” Rathmann explained. “And the grant from RCU is helping us run these (programs). We were also able to hire more staff and stay open on the weekends, which for our 26 years we’ve never be able to”

She said the animals offer fire survivors some peace and fun activity and she first got the idea to expand the program when several firefighters from Washington on a rest came by to visit the animals and were comforted by their cute and playful demeanor.

All in all, the North Bay Fire Relief Fund has received $31,994,006 in donations for the immediate aid of fire survivors from 41,000 donors in the 15 weeks following the fires. In addition to receiving donations from across the country, the fund received donations from 23 different countries from around the world. 68 percent of donations were from outside the four impacted communities, according to a press release from RCU.

The bulk of those donations ($19,691,063) has been given directly to fire survivors, including residents who have lost their homes, first responders, college and school age students and towards gift-cards for students who may have lost clothes or school supplies. “We’re honored to be able to help our community in  this time that our community is going through and honestly we’ve been overwhelmed and inspired by the generosity of over 40,000 donors,” McKenzie said. “For us it has been very heartwarming to realize how many people care about what happened here in the North Bay…”

And when asked if RCU expected to raise this much in funds, McKenzie noted that they have done fire relief fundraisers in the past with the 2010 and 2016 Lake County fires which have been successful, however with this fundraising campaign they were pleasantly surprised to see such a gargantuan outpouring of support from the community.

McKenzie said it was inspiring to see how many people donated and told of how kids would come to empty their piggy banks, organize bake sales, or how people made t-shirts, hats and jewelry, all in an effort to raise money for their community in need.

“We had no idea how large the fund would grow… It’s been overwhelming how kind and giving people and organizations have been. And I think what we’ve seen through this disaster was the very best in people coming out. It’s easy to get discouraged with events that happen in the world around us, but this is something to really be inspired by,” McKenzie said.