Katya Cengel 2017-12-22 14:04:16
PHOTOS BY KATYA CENGEL Despite the loss of their own homes in some cases, California Lions help their towns. In the early morning darkness of Monday Oct. 9 Phyllis Rogers had time to grab a single bag before fleeing her home. It was the bag she had been carrying around the day before-a cloth grocery-style tote with the Lions’ motto stamped on it. Rogers assumed her wallet would be inside the bag. With a wildfire raging nearby and the electricity out, she wasn’t able to check. It was only later, after she had escaped one of the many wildfires that killed 43 people and destroyed more than 8,900 structures in California, that she realized she did not have her wallet. She did have a wallet, but it wasn’t her wallet. The wallet in her bag belonged to her late husband, Charlie Rogers, who had died two months previously. With no identification, credit card or money of her own, Rogers, who is 79 and a member of Montgomery Village Lions Club in Santa Rosa, used Charlie’s credit card to buy gas and groceries. A week and a half later, her late husband’s wallet is still all she has. Pulling the wallet from her green tote, she grins and says, “Charlie’s been taking care of me.” She isn’t the only one Charlie has been helping. Charlie was a longtime Lion and upon his death mourners were asked to donate to the nonprofit Redwood Lions Memorial Foundation, which, among other things, provides disaster relief. It was in part “Charlie’s money” that Redwood Foundation President Barry Bialkoski used to buy blankets, clothing and other supplies for fire victims as soon as the fires hit Santa Rosa. While wildfires raged throughout the state beginning Oct. 8, Sonoma and Napa counties were particularly hard hit, losing 23 people and almost 7,000 structures to three major fires. Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat and home to about 175,000 people, was devastated. Lions Respond Everyone looked “a little shell shocked” at the first meeting of the Santa Rosa Host Lions Club following the fire, Bialkoski says. Two members of his club lost their homes. In Rogers’ club, three members, including Rogers and President Mike Bell, lost their homes. Rogers is now living with her son in Rohnert Park, a city about eight miles south of Santa Rosa. Bialkoski’s home is just around the corner, and this Wednesday morning, Oct. 18, they are eating breakfast together. Charlie had persuaded Phyllis to become a Lion in 2008. She later served as 4 C2 district governor, a district that includes Sonoma, Napa and Lake County as well as three other counties. It was under her watch in 2015 that wildfires killed four and destroyed almost 2,000 structures in Lake County, a neighboring county. Rogers used the Redwood Foundation to handle the donations that poured in. After the October wildfires the district received a $10,000 Emergency Grant from LCIF and has received $67,000 so far from Lions clubs and individuals nationwide. Even in the chaos of her loss, Rogers is focused on what Lions can do to help. She is tall and sturdy, with a dry sense of humor, but sometimes her humor and her voice fail her. While listing some of the practical things she has lost-passwords, checkbook registers, the paperwork to process Charlie’s death-she has to stop. “The list is long,” she says. “It isn’t endless, or hopeless, it’s just long.” The night before the fire reached her house, Rogers slept in her clothes. She was worried the winds gusting to hurricane force that were blowing from unusual directions might knock a tree over. She was woken around 2 a.m. by the sounds of a bullhorn and her neighbors pounding on her door. A few days later a first responder posted images of her community, Larkfield-Wikiup, on a neighborhood Facebook page. In the photos Rogers saw the flat area where her home used to be. Hundreds of houses were destroyed in the semi-rural community just north of Santa Rosa city limits. A week after the fire burned through the area, residents were briefly allowed back in. Until she was standing where her house once stood and felt the heat from the ground coming through the soles of her shoes, Rogers held out hope. “You know your house is gone,” she says. “You can accept that. But you have hope that all the stuff is there. Hope that the roof came down last, and all the stuff is underneath.” She tried to find something she recognized. But even the aluminum on car wheels had melted into puddles. The melting point for aluminum is 1,221 degrees. The fire, she realized, had been even hotter. It raged at a temperature similar to what they used to cremate her husband’s body. “That’s why they’re looking for artificial knees and hips,” she says. “Because there’s nothing left of the bodies.” There was nothing much left of anything. The shelters were chaotic on Monday Oct. 9. Some of the first things Bialkoski bought for them were dog leashes and cat litter. Walkers, bedpans and diapers were next on the list. Bialkoski drove around to the different shelters and service points asking what was needed. Then he and his wife, Roxanne, bought and delivered the items using funds from the Redwood Foundation. On Tuesday and Wednesday they bought medical supplies plus cold packs and a chalkboard. On Thursday and Friday they bought garbage bags and clothing. Over the weekend Roxanne bought pants, pillowcases and batteries. While waiting in line to buy stacks of underwear at one store a woman slipped her $30. “She said, ‘Here, take this money. I want it to go toward that,’” says Roxanne. Her husband, who has a tendency to turn the talk to politics, likes to say that after the fires there were no Democrats or Republicans, just “Americans.” And Lions. Roxanne isn’t a Lion, but she has helped her husband with disaster recovery shopping during both the Lake County and Sonoma County wildfires. To recognize her work for Lions, Barry has pasted a Lions bumper sticker on her car. She jokingly complains about spending their 50th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas this summer-at a Lions’ convention. Today though, Barry Bialkoski is by himself. After breakfast he heads to Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Santa Rosa. On the streets, children still wear facemasks to protect themselves from the smoke and haze, and armed National Guard soldiers can be seen patrolling. Bialkoski’s phone rings. He answers it on speaker mode. One of the first things he asks the caller is about the fire. “Our street was saved, burned our backyard. That’s how close it was,” says the voice on the other end “You were right on the front line,” says Bialkoski. He asks where the man and his family are staying. Until yesterday Bialkoski was housing his sister-in-law. She was lucky-her home was saved. The people at the veterans’ center were not so lucky. They are still walking around in shock trying to figure out what happened, says Joan Acquistapace, a 62-year-old registered nurse manning a supply station. Some of them are just now realizing they are running out of their medications, says Acquistapace. She is trying to get their insurance information and fill their prescriptions, but many lost their health insurance cards and access to money in the fire. Acquistapace has just returned from the pharmacy where she spent almost $600 on one set of prescriptions. Earlier in the week Bialkoski gave her a $500 credit card to help cover prescriptions, now he offers to buy another. The original donation inspired a doctor helping out at the shelter to ask a school in her neighborhood to raise money for the same thing. Thus, by bringing the initial $500 donation, Bialkoski “started something that got us more money,” says Acquistapace. Although Bialkoski is the one who delivered the funds, it was another Lion who discovered the need. As soon as he heard about the fires, Mike O’Neill went to the various Santa Rosa shelters to find out how he and his wife, Marjean, also a Lion, could help. When the couple discovered that drivers were paying for medication out of their own pockets, they asked Bialkoski if the Redwood Foundation could help. Then they went back to finding out what else could be done, which is how O’Neill found himself at the Salvation Army’s Santa Rosa Corps Community Center today helping sort donations. He came close to losing his own home and was packed and ready to evacuate on Oct. 9. But the evacuation order for his neighborhood never came. “We dodged the bullet,” says O’Neill, past president of nearby Cotati Lions Club. On Oct. 18, of the 55 clubs in District 4 C2, District Governor Les Mize estimates that 40 are in fire areas. Many of the fires have yet to be fully contained, so it is too early to know how many Lions in the district have lost homes, livelihoods and possibly even their lives. At present he knows of only the five homeless Santa Rosa Lions, but he is pretty sure there will be more. Just like he is pretty sure more Lions will come forward to help, as they already have. At the Salvation Army Center, Montgomery Village Lions served pancakes in the morning, and Crockett Lions and Berkeley Annapurna Lions, the first Nepalese Lions club of California, are sorting donations. Bill Ridle is one of two Crockett members who helped get Lions to volunteer. Still wearing the bright yellow Lions apron he thought he would need at the Salvation Army, Ridle watches his fellow Lions push grocery carts loaded with diapers through the large warehouse space. As past 4 C3 district governor, he now helps advise 4 C3 District Governor Rajen Thapa. When Thapa heard what the Crockett club was doing, he got several members of his Berkeley Annapurna club to join them. “The fire has broken out in our neighboring district, how can we sleep right there and not do anything?” asks Thapa. Even Mike Bell, who lost his own home, came when several members of his club volunteered to make pancakes. “I can’t have my club out there doing something without me. I have to at least show up,” he says. Bell credits Lion Bernard Diernick with getting a pancake crew together. Bell is busy trying to figure out where he and his family will live during the two years it will take to rebuild their home. They are currently staying with friends. The one thing that keeps him happy is his 18-month-old granddaughter, Lillian. Bell and his wife were sharing their home with Lillian and her parents before the fire hit, and now they are all “sticking together.” Togetherness is one of the things that make Lions so helpful, says Rio Ray, who heads the Salvation Army Santa Rosa Community Center. Instead of having to tell each volunteer what to do, Ray only has to tell the Lion in charge. During times of natural disasters he says he depends on volunteers and service organizations like Lions. “If I had to pay for staff to do everything around here it would bankrupt not only the Salvation Army in Santa Rosa but the whole Northern California Division,” says Ray. “So, really, volunteers are our strongest asset that we have.” Toward the early afternoon the first group of Lions makes way for the second shift. As he leaves, Bialkoski glances at the white board where the Salvation Army staff list what they need. Baby food is at the top. “Yeah, fill up my car with baby food tomorrow, see how it goes,” says Bialkoski. Then he gets back in his SUV and heads to another shelter. Extra Digital Content Nearly a century ago, Lions in California helped care for thousands left homeless by an epic fire. An odd coincidence, seen from the perspective of the present, on the same page the LION detailed a project, unrelated to the fire, to help girls in Santa Rosa. Read the two stories in the October 1923 LION.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://digital.lionmagazine.org/article/Terrible+Fires%2C+Selfless+Service/2966759/462736/article.html.