Monday, Oct. 9 did not dawn like any in Sonoma County’s history, as a firestorm enveloped much of the north and east, destroying entire neighborhoods and businesses in its path from Calistoga to northwest Santa Rosa.
But elderly residents still had to eat, so the kitchens of Council on Aging went full steam ahead despite the hardships of volunteers and employees alike.
“I received a call from Alyssa (Kutzer) at 3 a.m. asking me if I knew what was happening in Santa Rosa,” COA President and CEO Marrianne McBride said. “I was out of town at the time and she told me all of Santa Rosa was burning up.”
As McBride carefully made her way back, Kutzer and several other COA employees found themselves evacuated from their homes, some never to return.
On Monday, food deliveries were impossible but the doors opened as a temporary shelter and COA helped provide meals to the Red Cross that helped feed a rush of evacuees. A generator provided electricity, but there were no telephones or internet and cell phone service was spotty at best.
On Monday, night McBride sent out emails to gather enough staff and volunteers to get meals out to clients on Tuesday. Through the concerted efforts of COA and county employees, as well as many volunteers, 600 meals were delivered Tuesday and even more on Wednesday. The Meals on Wheels program delivers about 1,000 meals on any given day.
“We’re really short staffed and onsite staffing was at about 70 percent,” she said. “But they were all helping with food. We delivered as many meals and as much information as we could and checked on the status of our clients.”
McBride credits Head Chef Carrie Holwell for keeping the kitchen going and getting the food out. “Carrie was amazing. She had challenges, but stepped up and held the kitchen together.”
Holwell was filling in for Charles Lindner, Director, Senior Nutrition Services and Kitchen Operations, who lost everything in the fire. Lindner called her early Monday to tell her what was happening.
“He was watching his house burn, and said Santa Rosa was on fire,” said Holwell, who lives in southwest Santa Rosa near Wright Road and Sebastopol Avenue. “I tried to come to work, but sat in traffic for an hour.”
She eventually made it to the facility on Kawana Springs Road, unsure of what resources, staff or volunteers might be available.
“It was pretty nuts,” she said. “Nobody knew anything. We had two volunteers who lost everything and I have no idea how they did it. It was so courageous.”
Holwell set about her tasks with as positive an attitude as she could muster to try to keep an upbeat atmosphere in the kitchen.
“I’m trying to make everyone as comfortable as possible,” she said. “In such a devastating time, it’s tough to get a smile. But we’ve done an amazing job.”
The meals prepared on Tuesday were cold in consideration of people who might not have electricity. Holwell also oversaw preparation of 4,000 meals, twice the usual number, in order to “get ahead of the game.”
MOW drivers went out to see what was accessible and the program miraculously continued without much of a hiccup.
“We pulled off a miracle,” Holwell concluded.
By Wednesday, there was enough of a crew to staff the kitchen, pack and deliver meals amid an outpouring of support from the community in the face of the ongoing disaster.
From young volunteers to seasoned COA employees, the feeling of solidarity with those who lost everything was palpable in the kitchen.
Fourteen-year-old Jadon Keller, whose grandfather, renowned local chef Josef Keller, often works with COA, was on hand to pitch in that Wednesday, despite being evacuated from his home. But his house was still intact, so he wanted to help others survive the ordeal. It was also a way for him to make sense of what was happening.
“It has helped working here (during the crisis),” Jadon Keller said. “I worked here over the summer, but wanted to come in to help.”
Miguel Perez has worked for COA for 16 years, longer than young Keller has been alive. His home on the outskirts of the Coffey Park area survived, while many of his neighbors were burned out.
“They called me and said, ‘come to work,’ and I thought it was important to do,” he said. “Everybody has come to help from cooking to bagging lunches: it’s been good.”
On Thursday, volunteer driver Dave Robertson was set to deliver to the Rincon Valley/Maria Carrillo neighborhood and didn’t know if there would be anyplace to deliver. The fire came within 2.5 miles of his home on the west side of Fulton Avenue, so he was able to avoid evacuation.
“I have a lot of trailer parks on my route, so I feel for those who lost everything in the fires,” he said.
Even newer employees, such as Timothy Kitchen, who was recently homeless, saw returning to work and helping to feed area seniors was about more than just coming to work. Kitchen began working at COA in mid-September in hopes of stabilizing his life.
“I am so happy to be working at COA. I’ve been staying at the Rescue Mission, and now I’m saving to get a place,” he said, adding that in the wake of the catastrophe in the region, “It’s nice to see people coming together. I expected the worst but am seeing the best.”
The remote dining sites and Bistros shut down Monday, but COA offered what it could to any senior who showed up at a senior center looking for a meal or homebound person it was able to reach.
“We served delicious soups, sandwiches and salads and had a lot of people from Santa Rosa who were in transition,” Terri Condon, manager of the Sebastopol Area Senior Center dining site, said. “Some had lost their homes and others were waiting to find out.”
The Sebastopol Bistro was closed Monday and Tuesday, and served a limited menu as the emergency continued through the following week. Condon hopes to get the Bistro back to its regular service on Monday, Oct. 23 (after press time).
“We didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “But people were happy to come in and get out of the smoke. Everyone has been wonderful.”
All in all, it was a difficult task to keep the food going out and to keep spirits up in the face of such losses for friends and coworkers, but everyone worked together in support of each other any way they could.
McBride said she too expects the food programs to be back on track by Oct. 23.
“This tragedy has permeated everything and everyone feels a little sick, if you have any empathy at all,” she added.
To contribute to Council on Aging, go to councilonaging.com and scroll over the “How to Help” tab. A drop-down menu will direct you to our donation and volunteer pages. Use the credit/debit card option or mail a check to Council on Aging Services for Seniors, 30 Kawana Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, California 95404.