The Cotati Chamber of Commerce recently held their annual dinner and awards night, honoring hometown heroes and citizens. Stefanie Richardson won the Citizen-of-the-Year award for her outstanding volunteer work in helping out her community in a myriad of ways.
Born and raised in Cotati and graduating from Rancho Cotate High School in 2006, Richardson grew up in a household that was used to giving back. Her parents, Les and Linda Richardson, encouraged their daughter to help when she could.
“I grew up a part of the community,” says Richardson. “My parents volunteered and did things – it was modeled to me. They taught me that, if you can help, you should help. It seemed kind of straight forward.”
To that end, she started volunteering with her parents at the young age of four, helping build Helen Putnam Park in Cotati. As a child she also participated in the Laguna de Santa Rosa / Cotati Creek clean up every Earth Day. By high school she was donating her time and skills to various organizations including the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter and the American Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. She also volunteered for the Arroyo’s Foothills Land Conservancy in Pasadena where she led nature hikes for youth to promote the importance of appreciating and preserving public open space.
Most recently, Richardson took it upon herself to quickly and efficiently coordinate relief efforts immediately after the devastating wildfires that hit Sonoma County last fall. Like many others in the community, she wanted to help those affected by the fires and was frustrated by the confusion that ensued those first few days.
“We watched the news all day and saw all the destruction that took people’s homes so quickly,” says Richardson. “We also noticed the chaos and lack of information that was available – the amount of people that felt compelled to help, to participate, to show up and see if they could lend a hand to someone who needed it. But those people actually didn’t know how to help. I wanted to help but didn’t know where to go. I wanted to donate to a shelter and I was trying to figure out what would be the best shelter to go to but I wasn’t finding a ton of information.”
Official Sonoma County fire information websites hadn’t been created yet, so that same day, Oct. 9, Richardson built the website socofirerelief.com. Its mission was to organize and coordinate the delivery of donations to any individuals affected by the fires. On the website, individuals who wanted to help could find wish lists and links to GoFundMe Accounts of families directly impacted, up-to-date information on evacuation centers and donation drop offs, volunteer opportunities and reports about hot meal deliveries and other food donations. Even now, almost four months after the fires, the website is current and frequently updated with donation wish lists. Just last week, as people secured permanent housing, she mailed checks from the GoFundMe account for their rent.
“That was our goal,” says Richardson. “To provide immediate relief, but once people got settled, we wanted to help them get settled.”
By securing the use of a warehouse in Santa Rosa through a friend of hers, she was able to accept, and then redistribute, huge amounts of supplies and donations. With many shelters not taking donations because they didn’t have the capacity to store and sort them, she reached out to food banks and shelters to secure donation overflow, stored them in the warehouse and then directed people in need to the site. With a team of volunteers, she sorted through and coordinated donations that were coming as far away as Humboldt, San Diego and Texas. In addition, through the use of the warehouse, she could give evacuees a place to store their belongings until they could return home.
“Within about a 24-hour stand we became a very large, independently operated donation redistribution center,” says Richardson. “We maintained the warehouse for about a week and a half and redistributed supplies to evacuation centers all over the county as we could. We tried to get as much information to people as fast as we could. Our mission was ‘the right resources, to the right people, at the right time,’ whether that was information, or bottles of water, or a gas card so they could fill their car up with gas to get somewhere. We didn’t realize how large our network was – it was really amazing.”
Richardson also established a holiday family adoption program and helped facilitate a wishlist creation via Amazon registry. As the Manager of Wishbone Restaurant in Petaluma (at the time), she and the owner facilitated meal distributions and networked from there for securing additional donations. Previously, while at Wishbone, she had also helped arrange food allotments for those individuals standing with Native Peoples during the Dakota Pipeline protests.
Helping with fire relief was not the first time Richardson has sprung into action to successfully bring about change. In 2015, her best friend Anna Bachman, also from Cotati, tragically died in an accident. Richardson, along with some of Anna’s other friends and family, decided to help hold an event to honor her memory.
“She [Anna Bachman] was amazing,” says Richardson. “She was inspiring in every single sense of the word. She helped anyone and everyone. She worked for Habitat for Humanity, she worked on affordable housing grants in Chicago and Berkeley. She always told me, ‘don’t you just think that everyone deserves to feel safe and everyone deserves to have a shelter?’ I thought that yes, it’s so simple and yet often people forget that. After her accident it felt silly to just sit there idly and mourn her without honoring her in some way. I thought, ‘she wouldn’t just sit here, she would do something.’”
So, Richardson went before the Cotati City Council and received approval for use of La Plaza Park for a fundraising event to honor the memory of her best friend, which she did two years in a row. She helped secure silent auction donations, food, and a band. The proceeds from the Anna Bonanza event raised $30,000 over two years for Habitat for Humanity, Neighbors Organized Against Hunger (NOAH) and the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS).
When Richardson is not volunteering and making big impacts in her community, one can find her in her regular job, working as the Manager and Event Coordinator for a bed and breakfast in Inverness called Ten Inverness Way.