She came for clothes and stayed to volunteer

By Barbara Wood (10-16-2017)

Blanca Harnwell came to the American Red Cross shelter at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa on October 12 because she needed a change of clothes. Almost all of her belongings had been lost in the wildfire that leveled her Santa Rosa home a few days earlier. Blanca, a 46-year resident of Sonoma County, was able to find a pair of jeans and some capris that fit. In the disarrayed piles of clothing that had been donated by a generous community, she found something more: a volunteer job that allowed her to take her mind off her personal woes while she helped others.

ARC-BlancaIn the following days, Blanca joined the growing group of local volunteers who helped the Red Cross sort, store, organize, and redistribute the ever-growing piles of donations that poured in to assist those affected by the wildfires.

Blanca started working at the shelter “just to keep my mind busy,” she said. “I wanted to focus on people who may need help more than I do.”

During the prior year, as Blanca went through a divorce, the 64-year-old had been renting a room from a friend on Parker Hill Court in Santa Rosa. When she moved in, she brought with her what she calls “my most precious things.”

But on the night the fire swept through her neighborhood, Blanca wasn’t at home. She was housesitting for vacationing friends in a nearby neighborhood, watching over their two dogs.

“Someone knocked at the door at 1:30 a.m. Monday morning and said we had 10 minutes to get out of there,” Blanca said. So she grabbed her friends’ dogs and the clothes she had with her. “When we looked out the door, there was a glow of red right outside.”

She didn’t even think about the danger to her own home and potential loss of her own possessions, although she checked to make sure her roommate had been able to evacuate.

“As the terrifying morning continued, we heard all of Parker Hill had been burned down and Fountain Grove was on fire,” Blanca said. The possessions she left back at home were all gone. Among them were photos of her children, tools of her work as a photographer and artist, her camera and lenses, and the antique dolls she crafted into works of art.

Still, in the midst of such devastating personal losses, Blanca kept working, providing selfless support at the shelter for others. “The Red Cross shelter is a place you can give unconditional love and hugs to people,” she said. “It has really helped me.”

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Beth Eurotas and Lori Wilson provided editorial support for this story.