Richmond residents launch organized effort to help wildfire victims

Spanish CERT Members and friends pose at the Healdsburg Day Labor Center, where they organized a significant donation effort for wildfire victims on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019. (All photos contributed)

When the destructive Kincade Fire broke out in Sonoma County in late October, destroying a total of 374 structures, including 174 homes, an extraordinarily organized group of Richmond residents wanted to help in any way possible.

What they managed to accomplish would impress even the experts at FEMA.

At a time of crisis, the group of 28 neighbors assembled to formulate a needs assessment, asking themselves, “How could we do the most good for the most people?” They conducted research on organizations in Sonoma County that could most benefit from their donations, pulled together their resources and on Saturday, Nov. 9, traveled to the Healdsburg Day Labor Center with 106 bags of groceries to donate. The bags included beans, rice, oil, flour, coffee, canned foods like beans and vegetables, toilet paper and diapers. One of the residents, Henry Giron, offered up his auto body shop as a collection site.

The director of the day labor center was grateful for the donations. Day laborers have been impacted heavily by planned PG&E power shutoffs, which have become regular occurrences when high wind events increase the risk of wildfires. Many have still not been able to find jobs in the past month, leaving them without money for essentials like groceries, he said.

Throughout the Bay Area, support has been pouring into wildfire relief efforts. Russian River Brewing Co. relaunched its Sonoma Pride beer benefiting fire survivors. Actor John Cena and the rock band Metallica made significant monetary donations, as have a lengthy list of local companies such as AT&T, Amazon, Kaiser and Chevron, which recently added $100,000 to the $2.5 million it has donated over three years to the American Red Cross for fire relief efforts in California.

Augmenting those large donations are thriving efforts by groups of residents across the Bay Area who aren’t just willing to assist their neighbors in the North – but are becoming highly skilled at doing so.

Assembling the food donations for bagging.

That group of Richmond residents who donated the 106 bags of groceries to day laborers in Sonoma County aren’t your ordinary neighbors. They are all graduates this past fall of the Richmond Spanish Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program.

When the Kincade fire broke out, Genevieve Pastor-Cohen, emergency services manager for the Richmond Fire Department’s Office of Emergency Services, received a call from Dinorah Barton-Antonio, the contagiously enthusiastic coordinator of the Spanish CERT Program.

“She said her class wanted so much to go [to Sonoma County] to apply their CERT skills,” Pastor-Cohen said.

In order for Richmond’s CERT program to be able to help, the City of Healdsburg would need to officially request the help. As that request hadn’t been made, the CERT members went to Healdsburg on their own as Richmond residents, Pastor-Cohen said.

“For the holidays, they’re going back to Healdsburg and are doing a toy drive for the families they’ve assisted,” she added.

CERT Volunteers and all those grocery-filled bags.

CERT programs have enabled groups of residents across the Bay Area to become organized quickly and efficiently in order to carry out the maximum good.

Richmond has about 500 trained CERT members operating out of roughly half the city’s neighborhoods. Pastor-Cohen said she hopes to have teams in every neighborhood. In times of need, many people want to help. But it’s especially helpful when residents are trained at how to effectively help their neighbors and first responders.

As part of the CERT course, held four times annually in Richmond, members share the mission of “doing the most good for the most people,” Pastor-Cohen said.

CERT graduates receive 30 hours of training (10 classes, three hours each) from the Richmond Fire Department Office of Emergency Services on how to best respond as citizens to emergencies, such as natural disasters, acts of terrorism, search and rescue operations and more.

They learn how to organize neighborhood response teams, about state and national emergency response protocols and how to assist victims when emergency personnel is slow to respond. They even learn a bit of psychology, such as how to best communicate with an injured individual or how to recognize stress in their CERT teammate and take action.

Distributing the grocery-filled bags at the Healdsburg Day Labor Center.

Before graduating, they take part in an 8-hour drill day where they apply their new skills. And after graduation, they regularly meet to brush up on their skills and remain active in their neighborhoods.

Those impacted locally by PG&E Public Safety Power Shut-Offs might have seen CERT members knocking on doors to conduct welfare checks on vulnerable neighbors.

The more residents who take part in CERT programs, the more effective the response to emergencies, officials say. And that’s not just good for residents of Sonoma County, but also for those right here in Richmond.

That said, Pastor-Cohen is giving extra credit to the recent graduates currently testing their skills in Sonoma County. She says they’re a special group led by a particularly special Barton-Antonio.

Barton-Antonio is known for inspiring her CERT students to love their roles as citizen heroes. This group is both inspired, and inspiring, she said.

“They built a community within their own class,” she said. “They’re very gregarious and have fun. They’re just such a wonderful group of people. Just caring and compassionate. I am very proud of them.”

To find out more about Richmond CERT and how to participate and donate, visit their website here.

Sharing a good, hot meal.