After the Fires, Grants Help With Healing

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Kaiser Permanente contributes $1.5 million through 2 grants that extend mental health services and other support to Sonoma County fire victims. Pictured, a family portrait of the Mathiesen family taken during a pro bono session for fire victims.

Months after the Tubbs Fire destroyed their home in a neighborhood just north of Santa Rosa, Gaby Mathiesen and her family were still struggling with the emotional aftermath of the disaster.

Last October, the family of 5 raced from their home in pajamas, saving only their dog, and escaped the flames in a frightening early morning evacuation. After living with friends, then in a hotel, they found a house in Santa Rosa to rent while they wait to rebuild. But Mathiesen said her kids had trouble feeling safe, and her entire family felt adrift. She said her 10-year-old son, Alex, was angry about what happened and was dealing with a rollercoaster of emotions.

Mathiesen found free help for her son at the Santa Rosa City Schools Integrated Wellness Center, including counseling and tutoring to ensure that he didn’t fall behind at school.

“The center was an incredible help,” Mathiesen said. “Alex was able to talk about his feelings and how to deal with them. That was key to him recovering and feeling better.”

Counseling, Tutoring, and More

This summer, Kaiser Permanente contributed 2 grants to help individuals and families like the Mathiesens affected by last year’s North Bay fires. The Tubbs Fire alone destroyed more than 5,600 homes and structures and was one of the most devastating wildfires in the state’s history.

West County Community Services is one of the 4 nonprofits providing crisis counselors through the California HOPE program.

The first grant of $500,000 will be used to ensure that mental health and other support services are available to all county students and their families at the Santa Rosa Integrated Wellness Center, even when schools are not in session. Services include counseling, basic nurse services, academic tutoring, and referrals to community agencies.

The additional grant of $1 million will enable the Sonoma County Department of Health Services to continue a field-based crisis counseling program called California HOPE beyond the 1-year anniversary of the October 2017 fires.

California HOPE sends counselors from 4 nonprofit agencies into the community to help fire survivors wherever they may be. Some survivors need someone to talk to; others need tools to handle stress, help with finding housing, or other kinds of support. The program was initially funded by short-term disaster relief grants from FEMA.

“We believe it’s important to provide continuity of care and services to children, families, and individuals who still feel the effects of trauma and displacement after the wildfires,” said Kaiser Permanente’s Judy Coffey, RN, senior vice president and area manager, Marin-Sonoma. “These grants demonstrate our ongoing commitment to the community.”

A Message to Survivors

Early October will mark the 1-year anniversary of the start of the North Bay fires. But Wendy Wheelwright, Department of Health Services project manager for California HOPE, said the need for mental health services is still great.

“Our counselors have been averaging about 1,000 contacts a month,” Wheelwright said. “We have 20 teams of 2 counselors, and they can meet people wherever they’re staying, or wherever they work. We don’t want transportation to be a barrier to people getting help.”

Wheelwright described the community’s recovery from the wildfires as a “marathon.” She said most people who lost their homes are still displaced, and many in the community are now feeling the effects of long-term stress.

“They’re experiencing headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, and some are still having difficulty sleeping, especially when there are high winds or the smell of smoke in the air,” she said. “We’re also still seeing a lot of sadness, anxiousness, anger, and grief.”

Wheelwright welcomed the Kaiser Permanente grant, which she said demonstrates the organization’s commitment to community healing.

“The funding shows leadership, and it sends a message to survivors that we haven’t forgotten them.”

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this story! I lost my house and have to delay my wedding ceremony! I still have nightmares often! I have taken thousands of photos after the fire and still I keep taking photos during the rebuilding process of our community as I know people will forget what the devastating fire looked like after a few years. I am planning to have photo shows somewhere sometime for our community to help us to have more environmental sensitivity and be more thankful for what we have. By taking photos I release my sadness and recovery with hope. Thank you for what you have done for survivors!

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