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During crisis, Petaluma student stepped up to run emergency shelter

Many people volunteer, but few take charge.

During one of 15-year-old Paige Williams’ first forays into volunteering, her role quickly turned into that of a leader.

The Petaluma resident woke up the evening of Oct. 8, the night a firestorm ignited around Sonoma County, terrified that the smoke suffusing the air and the raining ash signaled devastation for her hometown. The next morning, after her family packed bags and learned the fires were burning a safe distance away, she and her father, Adrian Williams, bought cots for the evacuation shelter at Cavanagh Recreation Center.

Next, they stopped at the Veterans Memorial building in Petaluma, where the high school sophomore quickly turned into one of the evacuation center’s leaders. She’s since returned daily, spending more than 110 hours managing volunteers and donations.

“I can’t stand what’s been happening with the fires and how people are left with nothing – it’s devastating and sad,” she said Monday. “We all know someone. The people my dad works with sent me a photo and their house was gone, down to the ground. So we decided to check in here.”

The hours have been unforgiving – as classes have been canceled for a week, she pulled a 19-hour shift sorting through a crush of donations and community members offering helping hands. The center was teeming with donated good, ranging from hygiene products to clothes to a TV.

Williams, who takes classes through Petaluma’s Valley Oaks independent study program and takes an honors class at Petaluma High School, plans to keep up her efforts as long as possible.

“All I know is that every morning, I try my best to get up as early as possible and every time I get here they’re like ‘oh my god, Paige is here, good,’” she said.

Fellow volunteer Donna Lundstrom, a longtime psychiatric nurse who worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, took a moment away from her work to embrace Williams.

“She’s a rock star and the glue that holds us together,” said Lundstrom, a Petaluma resident.

Miguel Villarreal, a Petaluma resident who also volunteered at the Veterans Memorial, took to social media to praise Williams and other young Petalumans who stepped up.

“They are not standing around waiting for someone to direct them … They are directing and getting things accomplished … They are at the center of any problem that is occurring at the Veterans Memorial. You would never know they were so young. They keep a smile on their face the entire time and do not show any stress,” he wrote on Facebook.

Williams was one of countless volunteers who have worked for more than a week to care for traumatized evacuees, some of whom have lost everything to unrelenting fires. At the height of the effort, as many as 430 evacuees sought refuge at the Veterans Memorial, according to Commander Glenn Ross.

“They come in really scared and kind of sad, but we try to turn it all around by the next morning,” Williams said. “Not to brag, but they love our attitude and our love. We have everything they need. We’re well-equipped because of these great donations.”

While trying to check her own grief about the monumental losses can be tough, it’s worth it for Williams.

“Little kids are running around and laughing and people are still waking up with a smile on their face after all that devastation, it’s OK and we’ve helped them get to that point,” she said.

She’s also learned a few lessons along the way.

“If you see a problem, insert yourself and try your best to help. If you see people who are struggling, you could always find some way to help them. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you know, there’s always something you can do,” she said. “It’s pretty great actually, I’ve been pretty inspired by these people.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)

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