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Fire relief hampers Petaluma nonprofit fundraising

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Fall is normally a festive time at Tolay Lake Regional Park just outside of Petaluma. For two weekends in October, 18,000 visitors on average attend the Tolay Fall Festival, picking pumpkins, riding tractors, exploring animals and learning about nature.

But this year’s fall festival, which would have wrapped up last weekend, was canceled due to the recent wildfires that ravaged Sonoma County. One of the fires, which started on Highway 37, burned the southern portion of Tolay Park.

That combined with poor air quality and the fact that regional park staff were overtaxed with emergency duties, led officials to call off the annual event that raises funds for the parks, said Carol Eber, Petaluma’s representative on the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation.

The event sponsors all decided to let the foundation keep their donations for park restoration and fire relief, Eber said, but there is no way to replace the lost entrance fee revenue. With more pressing needs in the community, it may be difficult to ask donors to fund parks right now, Eber said.

“I think we want to be sensitive to the needs of the community,” she said. “There will be critical needs like housing first. We’ll be sensitive to that in our message to donors. At the same time, tourism is a big part of Sonoma County’s economy and the landscape is a big part of that.”

As Sonoma County recovers from one of the worst disasters to hit the state, nonprofits will have to balance raising money for their own causes with fundraising for fire relief efforts. They may find themselves competing for a pool of donor money that is stretched thin by the disaster recovery.

A fire relief fund sponsored by Redwood Credit Union and The Press Democrat had raised at least $10 million as of this week. Many online crowd-funding campaigns have been started for individual victims who lost houses in the fires.

At the same time, dozens of Petaluma-area nonprofits continued to rely on donations to continue serving community needs. Nonprofit leaders said the fires made fundraising tricky.

Some Petaluma fundraisers, like the Tolay Fall Festival, were canceled in the immediate aftermath of the fires. Other nonprofits continued to appeal to donors, demonstrating that their services were even more vital to a community reeling from the disaster.

Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, said their 1,000 Bowls event would still take place Nov. 24. People are encouraged in the next month to host pottery making parties, and the results will be auctioned at the fundraiser for the PPSC’s Meals on Wheels and nutrition programs.

Hempel said her organization’s services will be in demand as thousands of people across the county have been left without homes.

“We’ve got to keep the safety net strong,” she said. “People get it. Thank God people are giving to the emergency. At the same time, I hope supporters of ours continue to support us. Otherwise low income families won’t be able to live in this community.”

Some Petaluma nonprofits have suspended normal fundraising efforts to focus on emergency relief. Nonprofit affordable housing developer PEP Housing canceled a scheduled fundraising event at The Block last week and have instead asked for donations of clothing and gift cards.

Executive Director Mary Stompe said the organization has set up a shop in their Petaluma Boulevard South office for victims to come pick up needed supplies.

“Right now, our fundraising is completely dedicated to fire relief,” she said. “We’ll figure (our own needs) out. Now is a time to come together and help people in need.”

While some estimates place the total fire damage at $3 billion, the economic hit to local nonprofits has not been determined. Some think that fundraising will continue at normal levels, despite potential donor fatigue with fire relief efforts.

Maureen Highland, executive director of Petaluma Educational Foundation, said that even during the recession donors kept giving to local nonprofits.

PEF held its annual fundraiser in September, just before the fires that started Oct. 9, and Highland said by next year’s event life will hopefully be closer to normal. The organization did have a follow up appeal planned for this month, but postponed it because of the disaster.

“We delayed our campaign out of respect for what is going on,” she said. “We’ll do our outreach when it makes sense, when it is appropriate.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)