On April 1, 2021, the American Red Cross Heart of the Valley Chapter honored Carl and Jane Knowles for their hard work and dedication at the annual volunteer recognition event (held virtually due to COVID-19 precautions). Located in San Joaquin County, this amazing couple collectively put in over 1,200 volunteer hours in 2020 in various locations and activities, despite a pandemic and quarantine requirements.
For Jane and Carl, 2020 was packed. They worked in disaster assessment for the Lake Berryessa area and served food during the Santa Cruz fires. Jane sewed 450 masks for family, friends, SAF (Service to Armed Forces) and a neighborhood school. Then the Knowles transported large quantities of blood donations, often working double shifts five days a week to compensate for the reduction in volunteer drivers due to COVID-19.
Central Coast Chapter Volunteer of the Year Megan Erk says love of community led her to the American Red Cross
By Marcia Antipa
“Showing kindness and getting help to people that need it without regard to anything else – that is how I was brought up.”
Megan Erk – the Volunteer of the Year for the Central Coast Chapter – credits her father for inspiring her dedication to the community. He was a military man who brought his daughter along on volunteer projects.
“I kind of grew up in that environment where people just volunteered in the community to help out.”
Now Megan is taking on multiple roles with the American Red Cross. From hurricanes to wildfires, from blood drives to blog articles, Central Coast Chapter CEO Michele Averill says Megan has more than earned her award.
After twice evacuating her home for days during major wildfires, and living through several more evacuation warnings, you’d better believe Kathryn Hecht has a plan for the upcoming fire season.
The Sonoma County resident is a Red Cross regional communications manager whose job includes informing the public about the best ways to prepare for disasters.
She practices what she preaches.
Near her front door Hecht has stashed pet carriers and a go bag that includes clothing, important papers, emergency supplies, dog and cat food and toiletries. She has planned two driving routes out of her neighborhood, and a foot route in case those two are blocked. She subscribes to her county’s emergency notification system, Nixle, has the Red Cross emergency app on her phone, and follows local sources of emergency information on Twitter. She and her husband have agreed on two emergency meeting points in case one is unavailable.
When an evacuation warning is issued, Hecht parks her car nose out and moves her go bag into her car. She also recommends that you leave your garage door open if you have one (in case a power outage disables the opener).
Hecht — along with her husband, dog, two cats and four chickens — has twice evacuated from her home on the outskirts of Cloverdale in a development nestled into the foothills at the north end of Sonoma County. In September 2016 they moved into the neighborhood, which is in what is called the wildland urban interface, where homes and streets and neat gardens sit near hills covered with flammable vegetation.
“The day we moved in, there was a fire in those east hills,” Hecht says. That fire didn’t result in an evacuation, but a little more than a year later, on Oct. 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire struck the North Bay with little warning. “We were evacuated at 3:45 in the morning,” Hecht says. The sheriff passed by with a loudspeaker, warning residents to flee. Hecht was awoken moments earlier by a neighbor who over-rode Hecht’s ‘do not disturb’ cell phone setting by calling repeatedly.
“We had minutes to grab our things and get out,” Hecht says. “We didn’t’ have time to take anything but the clothes on our backs and our animals.” A friend who lived in a safe area of Cloverdale took in Hecht, her husband, 75-pound dog, two cats and four chickens.
“The chickens stayed in the garage, the cats went into the bathroom and the dog went promptly into their bed,” Hecht laughs.
The fire passed by Hecht’s neighborhood and they were allowed to return home a few days later.
By the time the next evacuation took place, for the October 2019 Kincade Fire, a few things had changed, including that Hecht had become a half-time Red Cross communications employee. (She now works full time for the Red Cross in addition to running a small non-profit.) Hecht, and her neighbors, were also way more prepared.
“I think people in this neighborhood were so traumatized, your guard gets up…I kind of feel like we were on edge in general,” Hecht says. The details from the fire that devastated Paradise and nearby communities in November of 2018 also goaded her.
“It really cemented for me that we had to be prepared in ways that weren’t just about having water and food in the house. We had to be prepared to evacuate this neighborhood on foot,” Hecht says. She added wire cutters to her go bag, in case she needs to go though a fence.
“I think it is a comfort to know that I am ready if something happens,” Hecht says. She keeps a list of what is in the go bag, so even if she’s panicked she knows just what is inside.
Hecht says she’s also prepared for the power to go out. She has a stash of blankets, shelf stable food and water, and some lanterns.
“We have a fireproof safe in our house that we put our marriage license and birth certificates in,” Hecht says. The documents are in a fireproof envelope that she transfers from the safe to the go bag when a warning comes.
Another important thing is to figure out where you’re going to get information in an emergency, Hecht says, and then to make sure that even if phones or electricity go out, there’s still a way to stay informed.
“Look at what you take for granted, and go a step beyond that,” Hecht says.
To show just how seriously Hecht takes the threat of a fire, there’s one more thing she has added to her go bag — a long straw that would allow her and her husband to jump into the pond behind their home and breathe while underwater if they had no time to evacuate.
American Red Cross volunteer – and recent transplant to Fairfield – Susan Reese always planned to work with the Red Cross when she retired. When Susan finally retired from the restaurant industry last year, she became a volunteer wildfire associate. While working at a Local Assistance Center (LAC) during the North Complex fires in Yuba City, disaster response leadership called for people to join the feeding team. Susan jumped up, and said, “Feeding is what I love doing!” Just like that, Susan’s first deployment brought everything full circle.
Susan first had contact with the Red Cross in 1997 when she lived in Klamath, California. That year, the Klamath River breeched and flooded the town. Susan says that the entire area “was wiped out.” The Red Cross arrived and began to feed survivors and evacuees by bringing in food from a neighboring city.
If Irene Johnson could live her life to perfection, she would be guided by the Seven Fundamental Principles of the Red Cross: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. “The principles really resonated with me. I really do believe in the Red Cross mission,” she said.
Those principles have served Irene well over her many years as a Red Cross volunteer where she’s participated in 26 disaster response deployments including Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Napa/Sonoma New Year’s flood (2006), Superstorm Sandy (2012), the Alberta wildfires (2016) and Hurricane Irma (2017), to name a few.
Irene’s Red Cross career began in Vietnam during the war. Living in Saigon in 1967, Irene volunteered at an army hospital where she would deliver books to bedridden soldiers. She speaks fondly of that first experience. “The guys that were almost well enough to leave would go to the recreation room and taught me how to play pool.”
Andy Witthohn has a long history of volunteerism and service work spanning multiple continents, industries, and community needs. Born in Bangor, ME, Andy studied in Nairobi, served in the Peace Corps in Somalia, and taught school – mostly kindergarten – for 20 years in Sonoma County. He finished his professional career advocating for teachers with the California Teachers Association.
In December 2020, he received the Gene Beck Memorial Volunteer of the Year award for his extensive efforts with the American Red Cross during the devastating Kincade Fire in 2019.
His peers were quick to gush.
“Not afraid to try new things or take on new challenges, Andy quickly became one of our most steadfast and reliable volunteers in the Napa-Sonoma Territory,” said Angela Hunt, volunteer for the Northern California Coastal Region and presenter of the award. “With his energetic spirit and constant good humor, he made short work of any project he took on, and he’s taken on quite a few. We’re so appreciative for everything he does.”