For Jamie Whitelaw, a cancer survivor who suffers from chronic pain, helping others is paramount.
That’s why when a lethal firestorm ignited in Sonoma County in October, the 32-year-old Cazadro resident and a friend began to collect and distribute donations for fire victims and first responders.
“We went around, did what we needed to do and by the time I got home that night I was in way more pain than I was before I started,” the mother of two said. “As I was laying in my bed I said ‘I can’t do this — my body is not going to let me do this, but what can I do to make a difference?’ ”
She created a Facebook page with ongoing updates of needs at evacuation centers, an effort that rapidly grew from five followers to 700 in the early days of the fires.
“I was calling evacuation centers and they were asking ‘Are you the one sending people? We literally are getting what we need off the list and the actual supplies we need within an hour,’” she said. “That was the whole point.”
Her effort gained momentum and has now transitioned into a Petaluma-based nonprofit that’s helped more than 400 families. Dubbed North Bay Donate, the organization allows fire victims to complete an intake form to detail needs and then utilizes its network of volunteer drivers to deliver custom care packages, conversation and goodwill to those in need.
“Delivery Angels” who make home drop offs refer clients to local providers, including Petaluma People Services Center and Redwood Empire Food Bank, she said.
“The people that have experienced so much in such a short amount of time that’s so traumatic really need that support,” she said. “Sadly, some people don’t have a support system for different things like that.”
The group is working to get corporate sponsorship and is still relying on the community for donations that are stored at a donated Petaluma warehouse in an undisclosed location.
The effort has been draining for Whitelaw, who is in remission from a battle with uterine and cervical cancer and suffers from chronic pain from scarring left on her internal organs from related procedures.
“Every time I was like ‘I can’t do this anymore, my body is killing me, I would have to be in bed for weeks,’ something would happen or someone would show up and just make it work and I’d push through,” she said.
She’s been buoyed by her mother and her community, including Julie Workman, a 34-year-old Humboldt resident who moved to Petaluma to help coordinate efforts. Workman, who had recently decided to take a break from her career to focus on artistic pursuits, had spent about 22 days volunteering in evacuation shelters before getting involved in North Bay Donate.
She now functions as the director of community outreach and a case manager, a role that puts her in contact with many needy families throughout the county.
“It can be emotional, but really connecting with these people is the silver lining and giving them a glimmer of hope and motivation to keep moving forward,” she said. “As challenging as it is to get past the initial disaster … it’s been a really beautiful thing to hear people talk about recovery.”
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