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‘What can I do to make a difference?’ Petaluma nonprofit gives to fire victims

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Find out more:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/nbdonate/about/

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.”

Find out more:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/nbdonate/about/

A woman who gave her name as Ash said North Bay Donate helped her and her daughters, ages 1 and 15, immensely after they lost their belongings in the fire. The trio had been staying with friends as Ash navigated a separation process with her husband, and the home was destroyed in the fires. At least 10 of her friends and relatives lost homes, and the family is now staying with relatives, including Ash’s father, whose Fountaingrove house was repaired for fire-related damage. Ash lost a large amount of income while her place of work was shuttered during the fires and the family is searching for permanent housing.

“The minute Julie reached out to me and we talked, I felt more comfortable and it just went from there ... I felt like I could open up to her and I felt comfortable and safe for the first time,” said Ash, who had been hesitant to seek help. “She had a gentleman come over with a few different boxes and it was just so heartfelt and really, really heartwarming.”

About four core volunteers run the operations, with about six dedicated drivers, Workman said.

Workman and Whitelaw both envision the North Bay Donate project evolving as needs change over the years-long rebuilding effort. Providing donations of vital goods allows those in crisis to spend limited funds on other essentials, like replacing vehicles lost to fires, Whitelaw said.

For Whitelaw, the effort is a labor of love, no matter how much pain she’s in.

“I just think, OK, maybe the universe had a plan for me — maybe that plan was that as sick as I am, I’ve always known that I needed to help people,” she said. “I’ve always been that person to give you the last $5 out of my pocket or the one that my friends call when they’re down and out … my end goal really in life is to just help and touch and reach as many people as I can.”

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