At the heart of it all

Artwork by Reyna Yang

In light of the recent California fires, the word “overpowering” was most often used not to describe tragedy, not to describe destruction, but to describe community.

“We filled a 2200 square foot empty unit within about six hours,” Camarillo resident Paul de Leon said.

De Leon and his wife, Tiana Scharf, own a local warehouse unit in Westlake Village that they used as a makeshift “donation station” during the fires. The couple both work within the wedding industry — de Leon as a wedding photography and Scharf who owns the Exotic Green Garden florist company — and know families impacted in Malibu.

“Malibu got hit hard by the fires,” de Leon said. “A lot of the families who have come in for donations have been from Malibu.”

Amber Farr and Tori Praver founded their own relief efforts for the Malibu community through One Love Malibu.

“My family lost everything — they’ve been in Malibu since 1971,” Farr, a clothing designer based in Venice, said. “People don’t know where to start, they’re so overwhelmed they become frozen.”

Starting Nov. 18, Farr and Praver organized a GoFundme for Malibu fire victims, which has raised over $145,000. But that’s far from everything. They opened a warehouse and received thousands of donations, and raised almost $1 million from a concert featuring artists like Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry Dec. 2.

“When we started, we had no idea that the onslaught of generosity and donations would end up where it did,” Farr said. “There’s all this misery on the news, but from my experience, people want to be good. Small things are a drop in a bucket, but when you collectively get it together, it’s very effective.”

Donations don’t have to be big. So far, Oak Park High School senior Tessa Costello-Ritchie teamed with Bonfire to sell 137 items of apparel sporting the words “Woolsey Strong.” She said she felt too many people were focusing on “Oak Park Strong” and “Thousand Oaks Strong” instead of a broader basis for all people impacted by the fires.

“The Woolsey fire affected more than just Oak Park, I wanted to reach out to the whole community,” Costello-Ritchie said.

Nov. 13, Shake Shack in Westlake Village donated all of its proceeds to the Ventura County Community Foundation and spent the whole week handing out free meals to police officers and firefighters.

Because of the crowd that accumulated throughout the day, extra employees had to come in from Shake Shacks located in downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and Glendale.

“I worked from 2-9p.m.,” Oak Park alumnus and Westlake Shake Shack employee Lucas Valencia said. “It was chaos. Some people had to wait in line for food for two hours.”

Donations were rerouted from the Los Angeles Fire Department to LA Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s office because the inundation of goods was too much for local firefighters and volunteers to handle. However, communications deputy for Blumenfield’s office, James Comlon, said they too reached an “issue with capacity.”

Amanda Lurey/Talon
People lined up at Shake Shack for the fundraiser

“We had over 100,000 lbs of donations, thousands of water bottles and hundreds of volunteers,” Comlon said.

BobCATs (volunteers from Blumenfield’s community action teams) aided in this process. They helped to reroute donated supplies to emergency shelters at Pierce College, Taft High School and Canoga Park High School.

“The most common things were what people had left behind in their homes as they evacuated, things that you’d sometimes forget: baby diapers, hygiene supplies, toothbrushes, energy bars,” Comlon said. “A lot of people weren’t showering for days; we pushed people to donate shampoo, conditioner and towels.”

The Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation originally opened its arms to donations, but soon found themselves overwhelmed with goods as well. As a solution, they turned to cash transactions and received over 25,000 online transactions, according to Liz Lin, president of the foundation. Some international transactions have come from Slovenia, India, London and Australia.

“I don’t think most people in the community know that LA city firefighters have equipment and things at the fire station that isn’t paid for by the city because the city’s budget only goes so far, and that’s why we exist as a non-profit,” Lin said. “With the outpouring of support, we’re able to purchase all the necessary equipment so that every firefighter will have a hydration backpack moving forward.”

Lin said that the foundation focuses on providing essential equipment to firefighters, furnishing fire station needs, getting more women to become firefighters, and education professionals and local youth. She also said that firefighters need as much assistance as they can get when facing unconventional situations.

“Eighty percent of the phone calls that we receive from the Los Angeles Fire Department are medical calls. A lot of people think it’s just for fires,” Lin said. “It’s everything from saving a cat from a tree, to responding to someone who’s got chest pains or someone who’s fallen, to dealing with electrical power lines. They really don’t know what they’re coming up against when they go out on a call.”

Ventura County’s Community Emergency Response Team had no time to prepare.

“With this particular fire, there was no time for CERT members to go knocking door to door, neighborhood-to-neighborhood,” Oak Park CERT leader Diane Starzak said. “The fire came on so fast and so vicious that in CERT you’re number one responsibility is your safety, your family’s safety and your immediate neighbors.”

Starzak said that all community members should subscribe to VCAlerts, that provides a reverse 911 number from the county government that contacts families personally in case of an emergency.

Some OPHS students who were also a part of CERT took it upon themselves to check up on their neighbors once allowed back home after evacuations.

“Everybody was so affected by the fires that there was no need to mobilize a team,” Starzak said. “Sometimes the best thing we can do is listen — let people vent and share their stories — because it’s such a raw, emotional time … There’s a lot of people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Those unsung heroes will probably never be identified or recognized as such.”