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  • Amber Bowen

On Giving Back in Crisis


The below post was written in response to the Northern California fires this past October. Much to my dismay we are witnessing similar disaster in Southern California. These words are by no means an official guidebook and do not intend to tell you how you choose to help is wrong. They are instead, reflections on a disaster that happened so swiftly, no one knew just how to act in everyone's best interest.

If you are here simply for information on how to help please scroll down and locate the RED TEXT.

Crisis and disaster are happening around the globe as we speak, and the number of these will only continue to grow. So how do we, as citizens, neighbors, and fellow human beings react to these catastrophes in the best possible way? As someone who has been volunteering almost as long as she has been walking, I’d like to share a few tips.

The recent fires in Sonoma County, California directly affected many close loved ones in my life. As of writing this post, over 3,500 homes and buildings have been destroyed. Since the fires broke out, I’ve been making every effort to be as helpful as possible without distracting those on the front lines. How can we offer our help most productively in a crisis situation?

If you haven’t experienced a major crisis, let me paint a picture of Sonoma today, October 11th, for you. A thick veil of smoke covers the sky and the light has an orange hue for miles. Even miles away from the fire in relatively clear-aired Sausalito, shoppers’ faces are frantic as I enter the local Target to grab supplies. Californians may be known for our sunny demeanors, but today, the sense of compassion and camaraderie was even higher. Strangers in line at Target turn to each other, thanking others for their contributions to the cause.

Outside the store, cars filled with evacuees line the streets. Animals, children and large family pictures are crammed into modestly-sized cars, and all of the occupants wearing glasses and air masks. The air is thick, warm and painful to breathe. Many a car serves as the resting place for a weeping head, most likely a newly-homeless resident. After several shopping stops, my car is full to the brim with carefully-selected items requested by local shelters and community centers. My first stop: The animal shelter in Rohnert Park.

Step One: Do your research. In the era of rapid accessibility, Facebook pages and local radio stations are among the best places to find up-to-the-minute information on exactly what is needed and where.

I walk into a small waiting room filled with forlorn faces filling out emergency boarding forms and missing animal reports. Emergency Animal Boarding is being provided by all shelters in the Bay Area, as well as many of the fairgrounds. This process allows newly homeless or displaced people to give up their animal to a shelter until they themselves can find refuge that can board both them and their animal. I ask a staff member where to leave my donations, and I am told “basically anywhere,” because busy volunteers haven’t had an opportunity to sort them yet. After dropping bags of supplies and goods, I realize I have made a mistake by simply donating goods rather than my time. The shelter is overwhelmed and clearly needs more hands.

Step Two: CALL. It is essential to call and ask what is needed so that you don’t contribute redundant or unnecessary items! Remember that phone lines may very well be busy and have patience! Want to donate material goods? Ask what is needed. Want to donate your time? ASK WHAT IS NEEDED. Many others may be trying to call, so be succinct in your queries for information.

After confirming over the phone that the shelter could benefit from extra hands on deck, I drive back. I take with me only the essentials; phone, keys, water bottle; no large bags. Things are very hectic in states of emergency, so adding clutter is not a good idea. Leave your non-essentials in a safe area. Try to be self-sufficient in volunteer spaces; asking excessive questions may distract a more experienced person who can do more skilled tasks.

Step Three: Be willing to roll up your sleeves and do grunt work. Many people want to be on the front lines of the situation and do the “big jobs,” but remember that those front-line roles often require years of training and skill, and it’s OK if you don’t have those skills!

Grunt work is so essential in trying times. At the shelter, staff members immediately ask me to organize a heap of donations piled in the waiting room. I spend hours organizing donations in a storage closet, and then breaking down boxes for recycling: Not fun. Not, in itself, inherently gratifying. However, the staff was so thankful: because I volunteered to take care of a time-consuming and monotonous task, trained staff members were now free to use their specialized skills in far more productive ways! Had I not organized those supplies, they would not have been able to use them; had I not broken down boxes, they would not have had more space for additional donations!

Step Four: Rinse and Repeat. Remember to continue your research, stay up to date with needs, and CALL.

With the animal shelter’s donations organized, I now had no more daylight, a growling tummy, and a car full of sundries and undergarments for delivery. I tried 4 community shelters before realizing donations had been dropped off en masse, and they were at capacity at the moment; physical donations were not immediately needed in this area, except for further up on the the front lines. I knew that I would not be able to drive through bad conditions and roadblocks to get these supplies where they needed to go. And that is OK. Having a confused driver on the roads after dark is a hindrance to first responders, as much as supplies may be needed. With this in mind, I returned many supplies to the store and donated the funds directly instead.

Step Five: When in doubt, give cash.

I know we all want to be there in person, and give our all! And that’s beautiful and noble and kind. But there’s a reason the nonprofits on the front lines are called “organizations”: Plain and simple, they are organized. There are hierarchies in place, years of training, and known procedures for dealing with tragedy. Those groups can do a hell of a lot more with cash to buy needed supplies, pay for procedures, and support other groups than they can do with someone who doesn’t know the situation and doesn’t know the area, which can just add more tasks to their to-do lists. The biggest way you can make a difference efficiently is ultimately by giving cash to organizations that can help thousands of people at once, and your impact will be bigger than you know.

For Levi and I, who both had family and loved ones impacted, we found showing up to shelters ( animal and human ) and asking how we could help was the most effective method. It seems the redcross is utilizing the Ventura County Fairgrounds. If you can't get there, stop by a local animal shelter or homeless shelter. Do not be discouraged if they do not need your help. However, they more than likely will...

If you would like to donate to the LOS ANGELES FIRES , here are some links and ideas!

Text UWVC to 41444 to make a cash donation to the Thomas Fire Fund The United Way of Ventura County, American Red Cross of Ventura County and the Ventura County Sheriff's Office of Emergency Services have teamed up to create the Thomas Fire Fund. All proceeds will go directly to support the hundreds of residents displaced by the fires. Donations can be made via text message, on United Way of Ventura County's website or over the phone at 805-485-6288. Checks with "Thomas Fire Fund" in the memo line can be mailed to 702 County Square Drive, Suite 100 Ventura, CA 93003. Donate water, snacks to help displaced residents The Salvation Army Ventura Corps has set up shop at the Ventura County Fairgrounds and is asking for donations of food and water as it works to help evacuees. As the charity's other chapters assist in various evacuation centers, Salvation Army is asking for monetary donations to support its work. Those wishing to donate can do so by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY or visiting the organization's website. Donate, volunteer with the Red Cross The Red Cross is accepting applications for volunteers on its website. The Red Cross of Los Angeles will disseminate information about volunteer opportunities on its social media accounts as it determines additional needs for communities impacted by the fires. Those who wish to make cash donations can do so on redcrossla.org or over the phone by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. Donate gently used clothing, Christmas gifts for families displaced Catholic Charities is accepting donations of gently used clothing as well as new toys and clothing to be given as Christmas gifts to families displaced by the fires. Donations can be dropped off at Catholic Charities' Ventura Community Services Center at 303 N. Ventura Ave. Ventura, CA 93001. The charity has also established a special fund to help offset the cost of home repairs. Donations can be made to the Catholic Charities website. Donate cash or supplies to the Humane Society of Ventura County As HSVC works to care for the more than 100 animals that it has taken in since the fires began, the organization says it is in need of donations. Alfalfa hay, Timothy hay, cat chow, rabbit food, flashlights, headlamps, lanterns, water troughs, bottled water, fruit, snacks, hoses and power generators can be dropped off at the shelter at 402 Bryant St. in Ojai.

HSVC is also asking for food and water donations to feed volunteers working around the clock. Those who cannot bring supplies to the shelter can make cash donations on HSVC's website.


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