‘It’s going to take a whole community:’ Petaluma’s Hempel leads fire healing effort

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When Elece Hempel sought to transition from the high-powered tech world into the nonprofit realm, she had to convince Petaluma People Services Center’s leadership she was right for the job.

After two months of working for free, she was hired by the nonprofit, and she hasn’t looked back since. With creative thinking and tenacity, she’s grown the organization, which serves as a key Petaluma resource with programs in high demand after October’s ferocious fires.

“When I think about how we reacted to the fires, everyone at this agency accepted responsibility,” said Hempel, the current executive director who has worked in various capacities at PPSC since 2004. “We were one of the few large nonprofits that wasn’t impacted by the fires and we needed to step up.”

PPSC provides services for seniors, housing programs, adult and youth employment and training programs as well as counseling and food assistance. As disaster struck, PPSC’s Petaluma Bounty Farm helped distribute produce and other goods local agrarians weren’t able to sell at farmer’s markets, Hempel said.

Case managers reached out to Petaluma seniors to prepare them in case the flames reached the city limits, and offer support during some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history.

Shared Housing and Resource Exchange, or SHARE Sonoma County, a partner program with PPSC, was expanded to help house displaced fire victims as flames were still devouring more than 5,000 homes in the county. About 85 people are now living in long-term home shares, an effort powered by volunteers who stepped up to help, Hempel said.

Her organization is currently drafting a blueprint to serve residents whose lives were turned upside down by the fires, while also reaching its regular clients in Petaluma and beyond.

“We’ve already seen an increase and a growing need for trauma-informed counseling … for many clients, this is just one more thing to add to this sometimes awful life and we continue to try to find the silver lining,” the 57-year-old said. “We’re seeing a need for that and we’re in conversations to build programming for first responders.”

Hempel is no stranger to the trauma caused by natural disasters, and is still dealing with the aftermath of the deadly 2015 Valley Fire that claimed her second home on Cobb Mountain.

The residence, filled with memories and mementos from Hempel and her partner, Alan Maciel’s combined families, was reduced to dust and ash, she said. After the fire, she was forced to go through the heart-wrenching exercise of itemizing lost belongings for her insurance company. The couple waited until neighbors who live in the area full-time reconstructed their homes to start rebuilding their own residence.

As Sonoma County’s fires ignited, Maciel’s daughter evacuated to Petaluma, where Hempel spent the early hours following Nixle and the news. Though she jumped into action, time would pass before the reality sunk in, she said.

“It wasn’t until about three or four days after did it hit home about what’s going to happen to all these people who lost their homes in the fire,” she said. “I have to tell you – there’s trauma and angst associated with the helplessness you feel dealing with the insurance companies and the county.”

Hempel knows it will be a long road to recovery for shell-shocked Sonoma County. Her nonprofit, like many others, faces funding challenges in coming months and years. While money poured into fire relief funds, nonprofits continue to depend on community support to meet growing demands for services after the fires.

As the rebuilding process unfolds in the county, she challenged local leaders and service providers to consider all solutions.

“It’s going to take a whole community and a collective effort,” she said. “One of the things that’s frustrated me more than others is the ‘not in my neighborhood’ attitude. If it’s not going to be in your neighborhood, then where?” she said. “We need to be more understanding and open to other people … listening before reacting is really, really important.”

While the Washington native devotes much of her time to managing her staff of about 63 and the more than 400 volunteers that support the organization, she also serves as the president of the Petaluma Health Care District’s Board of Directors. Hempel, who has worked in various roles from startups to aerobics, holds community service close to heart.

She’s part of the coordinating committee for the Petaluma Community Relations Council, serves on the board of directors for the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce and serves on the subcommittee of Age-Friendly Sonoma County, among other local roles.

“I love this town, I really do,” she said. “I grew up in a little town that was very similar with agricultural roots, but it didn’t have the ability to grow in the same way Petaluma has. For me, it’s my passion.”

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