By Lindsay R. Peak
Having survived the Valley Fire that decimated so much of Lake County in 2015, the mother/daughter duo of Kathleen Connors, 66, and Kelly Grimsley, 33, moved to Santa Rosa in August 2016 to make a “fresh start.” They had barely settled there when they heard the astonishing news in October 2017 of the threatening Tubbs Fire near their new home.
The two quickly fled, traveling toward Healdsburg in search of safety. A wrong turn landed them in Guerneville. Realizing their mistake, they looped back toward the freeway, eventually arriving at the emergency Red Cross shelter at Windsor High School in the early morning hours.
Remembering the feeling of being displaced with her daughter and a just a few important papers, fire survivor Connors pensively jests, “This was as ‘fresh’ as it gets.”
Night one, the pair slept on wrestling mats on the shelter’s floor. Night two, there were cots. “That was a really welcome thing. We could really rest a little bit,” says Connors.
In the days to come, community donations began to pour in. Connors and her daughter recounted the large mountain of available items piling up in the center of the gymnasium, including bedding. Padding their cots with layers of sheets, blankets, and warm comforters made their unthinkable situation feel a little more like home.
“All of our immediate needs were met,” says Connors.
Connors had limited experience with the American Red Cross prior to staying in the shelter. She recalls participating in basic training decades before while volunteering as a candy striper, but not much more.
No strangers to giving, Grimsley and Connors had regularly volunteered with local charities and non-profit organizations. Grimsley, diagnosed with autism and with other medical challenges, enjoys donating her time to help benefit others. Most of the projects Grimsley and her mother had choosen to work on are geared toward fundraising for or increasing awareness of a particular cause.
But this experience was different, as the first-time shelter clients were receivers instead of givers of volunteer services.
“What an extraordinary compassion [it is] to receive,” says Connors. “I never gave it a second thought when on the other side. It’s just what you did. Being on the receiving side, you see that these people are really extraordinary. The compassion was extraordinary. To receive that was just amazing.”
Connors further explains, “All the resources were organized. We saw everyone working with law enforcement. We had food. Medical care was available. A hug was there if we needed a hug.”
Commencing the long process of rebuilding, Grimsley took to the Internet. Online, she discovered that a beloved local chapel was among the structural fire victims. Once praised for its exquisite mosaic wall, only the tiles survived. A handful of individuals sought volunteers for an art project aimed at making trinkets from these recovered tiles.
Mother and daughter had frequently taken art classes, so the project seemed like a perfect fit.
With their spirits down, the creative process was a welcome distraction. It was a way to occupy their minds, bring them together with the community, and use their talents in a positive way while going through the many stages of grief.
Over a period of three months, this mother and daughter worked roughly 200 hours on the project. After the tiles were cleaned, tumbled, and polished, they were crafted into crosses, ornaments, garden accents, and tie tacks, among other things. In all, the pair and others involved created over 1,000 unique keepsakes.
The tile creations were given away at a variety of events aimed at community togetherness. They served as a sign of strength, symbolic rebuilding, and comfort in times of need. Some mementos were sent to the Camp Fire this past fall. Others were distributed to local churches.
By word of mouth, more and more volunteers participated in the project. And, it is not over.
“There are still projects to do. There are still tiles,” says Connors.
Connors and Grimsley presented each Red Cross volunteer with one of their masterpieces as a token of appreciation at the California Northwest Chapter’s September BBQ celebration.
Connors has many human-interest stories and positive experiences to share, including a misunderstanding about the comfort level of a standard-issue cot.
After leaving the shelter, she and her daughter were briefly displaced again. Connors marched into the local Red Cross office to seek assistance one more time. Connors asked a Red Cross representative if she could borrow one of the cots she got so familiar with over the course of a few weeks in the shelter. The Red Cross representative looked at Connors with a confused look and said, “You want to borrow… a cot?” Connors confidently replied, “Yes. We were in a shelter. We slept really good on the cots. I will bring it back. I want to borrow it just for a few days.” The woman left momentarily and returned, visibly concerned. Without saying yes or no to the request, the representative compassionately stated, “Ma’am, I think you need a pysch evaluation.”
Connors, taken aback, then explained how the community donations and experience with the Red Cross made the standard-issue cot more than a cot to her and her daughter in their time of need.
Understanding her experience more completely, the two shared a good laugh.
“It was a fun moment,” says Connors.
Rising from the ashes, this mother-daughter twosome remain positive as they continue to search for permanent housing. They have slept in numerous places including an office and at Red Cross volunteer Peggy Goebel’s home.
Uprooted twice by natural disaster, Connors has learned and shares a mantra about one’s home:
“Home and sacred ground is where you are whatever moment in time it is.
“The fire was the fire,” she says. “We have to choose to appreciate things that came out of the fire that were amazing. There were a lot of people we wouldn’t have met or known had it not been for the fire. It has its moments. There is a little silver lining.”
About the author: Lindsay Peak is a volunteer writer for the California Northwest Chapter of the American Red Cross.