By Stephanie Derammelaere
It all started a couple years ago with a member at Church of the Oaks, a nondenominational church in Cotati, mentioning the trouble refugee families have in finding places and wondering if there was anything the church could do to help. Around that time, other church members Marjorie Crump-Shears and Jim Simonds went to a meeting hosted by East Bay Catholic Charities for all local churches. They established a connection and shortly after, in early 2016, became aware of a need to help a family fleeing from Afghanistan who was hoping to reside in Sonoma County. Since Catholic Charities could not accommodate the needs of the family, they were hoping members of the Church of the Oaks could step in and help – quickly.
“There was discussion during a potluck about the possibility of our church’s supporting immigrant families and that’s how the investigation began,” says Marjorie Crump-Shears. “The Sonoma County Catholic Charities no longer worked in immigrant re-location because the costs of housing are so high here. They felt it was a losing battle. So, yes, we wanted to be involved. And our timing was impeccable!”
The Afghani family, which included a four-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl, left their home country amid threats to their lives. The father of the family worked for an American company, identifying and diffusing landmines and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) laid by the Taliban. Because of his affiliation with the U.S. government, his life and family’s lives were threatened and they feared the worst if they stayed in Afghanistan. Given that he had a friend and ex-co-worker who lived in Petaluma, he decided he would try to settle there. Armed with only a couple suitcases, the family needed everything to put together a home. The participating church members put out calls, emails and used social media to help gather household goods and supplies the family would need.
The response was swift and immediate. Soon donations came pouring in from all across the county. Within about two weeks, everything including items to outfit a kitchen, furniture, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products and toys, diapers and other baby paraphernalia was donated so that the church soon needed a storage facility to store it all temporarily.
“We started the program to collect donations which was incredibly well-received by our congregation,” says Mike Gribbell, a Church of the Oaks member who was involved in the early stages of the effort. “In no time we had everything we needed, with one exception - a place.”
After looking for several weeks, it was determined that nothing in Sonoma County would fit into the family’s budget or would be accepting of their situation. Eventually an apartment complex was found in Sacramento that was partly government subsidized and would agree to accept less than market value for the rent.
“In fact that community had a fairly large Afghani community there,” recalls Gribbell. “When I took the stuff over there we got there quite late on a Friday evening. There was only he and I trying to move the stuff to a second floor apartment. People came out of the woodwork and they helped us drag all that furniture and goods that we had collected to the second floor apartment. It was such a good experience to see everybody pitch in and help someone in need like that.”
After the success in pulling together to help the Afghani family get settled, the members of Church of the Oaks who participated in the effort decided they wanted to continue helping in other aid situations. They coined the name “Crisis Wranglers” for their little group and decided to focus their energies on trying to find those situations where they can help others that are not getting help from other sources.
“Of course there are all kinds of charities and organizations in the county and state and country,” says Gribbell. “Certain things are well funded and well taken care of, and certain things aren’t. So what we try to do is identify those things that need help the most and that are maybe on the smaller side and don’t get big government money.”
To that end they have done various donation drives for organizations like the Living Room and COTS and the church does monthly food drives for NOAH, Neighbors Organized Against Hunger based in Rohnert Park.
“What I like best is the sense of joy that you get from helping others,” says Gribbell. “I probably never realized before [helping the Afghani family], how much it makes you feel good to truly help others. I’ve helped others more on an individual basis – people I know – but it’s something else to really go out and help somebody get situated like we did with that family and the gratitude that we where shown. He commented several times that ‘you people are more like my brothers than my brothers. Thank you very much for everything you did for my family and I’. Even with all the cultural differences, it goes to show that we really are all just on this planet together to help each other get through it, one way or the other.”
It’s a lesson Church of the Oaks communicates on a regular basis and practices in their acceptance of anybody, from any faith.
“From my parents and former churches, I’ve known and experienced that when we give/share, we reap far more rewards personally,” says Crump-Shears.