Wow….I just- uhhh [rubbing his face]
He pulls my friend close
Then he pulls me in
This seventy-some year old man’s breathing was shallow,
But his next words were clear as day
I’ve been so impressed by the people of Ventura
As he grips each of our hands
Then he pulls away and repeats words of gratitude again
This was an interaction from three days ago by midtown Ventura as my good friend Rhandi and I gave an elderly couple from Santa Paula a check to help them on their road to recovery. Santa Paula is where the Thomas fire started, and this couple- who were complete strangers- were in dire need of help. The picture attached is what is left of their house. He is in his seventies and recently had a stroke. His wife is blind and has Alzheimer's. They were living with a friend who was helping take care of them. His friend was out of town the night the fire broke out, and when he got the call from a neighbor that the fire was fast approaching, he grabbed his friend’s cat, his dog, and led his wife to the car. He didn’t have time to grab his cane or medicine. They escaped only with the clothes on their back. “My wife wore pajamas for the first three days,” he told the two of us.
His story is like so many I’ve heard over the past ten days- people quick to exit, bringing whatever they could, losing the rest, and in severe cases, losing both their house, car, AND job.
It is still mayhem in Ventura County. It's been eleven days since the Thomas fire started. Here’s a breakdown of what's happened so far:
-The Thomas fire is now the 3rd largest fire in California history
-The Thomas fire has burned over 259,000 acres and is 40% contained
-The Thomas fire has destroyed 900 structures and 746 homes
-Over 8,000 firefighters have battled the flames, costing 74 million in firefighting costs
- According to fire officials, full containment of the Thomas fire is not expected until January 7th
These numbers pour salt into the wounds for a state that was already in the midst of a desperate housing crisis.
It's hard for communities to properly grieve when the fire is still raging. With the Thomas fire (hopefully) done ravaging Ventura County, it’s now moved onto Santa Barbara County; Yet, the relief and outpouring of support that people have shown to all of us in Southern California has been nothing short of spectacular. Which brings me to a question worth asking:
How can someone best channel all of the relief that has been graciously sent to their community?
Nonprofits like United Way Ventura County and the Red Cross are doing phenomenal. Yet they are being swarmed with donations- with most of them being water and food, plus clothes. Driving by their donation sites you see stacks upon stacks of stuff. People give because they feel compelled to help, but this makes it a challenge for the short-staffed volunteers to find the best match for all of these donations.
GoFundMe has been another outlet that individuals have started to gather monetary donations through. This site takes almost 8% of the amount raised and the individual running the campaign sets a cap on how they want to fund. This means when you reach your goal people stop donating. With relief efforts in Ventura, I didn’t want to set a goal because I wanted to avoid the satisfaction that comes with that. The relief doesn't stop when we hit a certain number, because Ventura County will need help long after the money stops pouring in; so with no end goal, we are constantly working towards helping any way we can. I've been astonished wth how people (mainly family, friends, and their networks) has responded to my plea for help. I have hope for humanity.
As a one-man team, I was able to handle the initial outpouring of support. As the days went by it become more of a challenge- especially with how to make sure Every. Single. Cent. went to people who were in desperate need of help. Let's talk about money.
Over the past week I’ve collected $8,515 for families in Ventura County. I’ll repeat that number. We raised $8,515 for families in Ventura County using Venmo and face-to-face donations. That’s insane. What started out as a temporary relief fund has turned into a long-lasting dedication to helping Ventura County recover.
The goal of this initiative was, and still is, to put money, goods, and gift cards in the hands of families that lack support or will be possibly left behind in this crisis. When deciding how to disperse the money collected, my friend Rhandi and I looked to see which families have current GoFundMe accounts, how well those fundraising efforts were going, and then we screened their social media profiles to make sure there were no grey areas. All week we’ve been running around Ventura County, setting up pop up offices in coffee shops, and reaching out to people directly through texts, phone calls, and social media posts. We've been vetting people properly as to make sure Every. Single. Cent. goes to families that are in serious need of assistance.
This is grassroots organizing in the truest sense.
All of the money collected was distributed to community members based on people who vouched for them. When a disaster of this magnitude strikes this close to home, I had to work with people I trust, those who I’ve developed strong ties with. David Martinez, owner of the barbershop Manny and Burd in Downtown Ventura, helped me link up to families in need. Rhandi LaChonce did the same thing. The rest of the families came from tips that my colleagues and former students at Villanova Preparatory School sent to me.
Here’s a breakdown of the money collected thus far and where it went. (I’ve decided not to include the names of families because of privacy concerns, but for those of you who donated, I will send you their names and story when I pass out ‘thank you’ cards in the next few days when, or if, life slows down.)
Everyone on this list has lost at least their house. Some have lost their house and car. Others have lost their house, car, and job.
-Alumni of Villanova who lost her home ($870)
-21-year-old couple from Hawaiian Village ($400)
-Brazilian family of four from the east end of Ventura ($1,600)
-Single mother of two in Ojai ($1,000)
-Family of two on the east end of Ventura ($200)
-Family of two on the east end ($200)
-Couple from Walden surf shop ($335)
-Elderly couple from Santa Paula ($500)
-A brother and sister who each lost their house on the east end of Ventura ($500)
-A farm worker and his family in Upper Ojai ($1,000)
- Single woman who lived in the Harbor View apartments ($400)
*-11 Families who lived (and worked) on a farm in Santa Paula ($1,510)
The families who lived on the farm in Santa Paula is where Rhandi and I are currently extending our influence and resources. I am not asking anything else from this group, but if anyone has any other resources to share, please, please, reach out to me. My email is Galetto.firstname.lastname@example.org and my Instagram handle is Galetto.b. Rhandi's contact information is email@example.com and her Facebook page is Rhandi LaChance.
The road to recovery is long and daunting. However, the support shown from all of you has absolutely helped. Through all the email checking and searching the web this week, I’ll leave you with a favorite quote of mine from Master Sheng Yen, which perfectly sums up this entire relief effort: “When out of gratitude we use our candle to light other people’s candles, the whole room gets brighter. This is why we transfer merit to others. This kind of light is continuous and inexhaustible.”