“You’re going on a boat in Cambodia and you’re paddling out; you can stand on top of a giant skyscraper and look down; dinosaurs come out and chase you if you’re adventurous,” says John MacLeod, director of Virtual Augmented Reality (VAR) Libraries, under a smoky peach sky at the Marin Center.
It’s Friday, October 13, five days after the deadliest fires in California history began ravaging the North Bay. MacLeod is on his way to set up a virtual reality station for the hundreds of children and adults who have been evacuated from their homes in Sonoma and Napa counties, and find themselves at the temporary evacuation center.
“We’re just trying to get people to step outside themselves, and be able to relax a little bit,” MacLeod says, before passing long tables overflowing with colorful, donated clothes of all different sizes, and stacks of bottled water.
MacLeod is one of thousands of people in Marin, from nonprofits and the general public, who have come together to donate time, food, clothing, art, yoga, meditation, money, gift cards and more to neighbors in need.
“This community has truly come out in droves with incredible generosity and support for these people,” says Libby Garrison, marketing and communications manager for Marin County’s Department of Cultural Services, noting that on Monday, the first day of operation, the Marin Center sheltered 525 people. And according to the Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL), a Marin-based nonprofit that was activated as an Emergency Volunteer Center (EVC), around 12,000 people had signed up within the week to volunteer.
“There was a lady on the first day that people were here that donated $1,000,” Garrison says. “She went to Target and bought $1,000 worth of socks and underwear and just dropped them off.”
Another woman, Garrison says, came up to her and said, “I can teach a zumba class in a heartbeat.”
There was such an outpouring of support, in fact, that organizers were forced to put a cap on donations. A handwritten poster at the entrance reads, “Thank you … donations closed—at capacity.” Another larger, digital sign on the side of the road flashes with the message, ‘No Donations Accepted.’
The Marin County Free Library Bookmobile, offering books and other reading materials is parked out front, along with the Flagship, a “preschool on wheels.”
“We’ve started to provide some physical activities like hula hoops and Nerf balls,” says Damon Hill, interim deputy director for the Marin County Free Library. “Anything to do to kind of just relieve the pressure of the day.”
Inside the shelter, a children’s activities room features hands-on art projects, and story time with the San Rafael Public Library. A young boy pushes a plastic yellow truck around a plastic house; in the hallway, a man cradles a small, blanketed child on his chest and checks a map taped to the wall that illustrates areas where fires are still burning. In the exhibit hall to the right, hundreds of American Red Cross cots are lined up side-by-side under hanging loops of white Christmas lights; small suitcases full of personal items are tucked underneath.
A medical clinic staffed by the Marin County Medical Reserve Core and the San Francisco-Marin Medical Society provides nurses and doctors for 24-hour coverage, and counselors are also on hand. A room has been set up where evacuees can sleep with their pets, and according to Lisa Bloch, of Marin Humane, close to 400 pets—including dogs, cats, birds, turkeys, rabbits, reptiles and fish—of evacuees were boarded for free at the nonprofit; more than 200 Marin Humane volunteers were helping with efforts to look after them.
“We are housing several hundred evacuees here, but since our role for the county is cultural services, we wanted to make sure that our guests are housed and fed and safe, but also entertained,” Garrison says. “And we have had incredible support from our cultural
community, who have stepped up and sent musicians, and art teachers and yoga teachers and meditation teachers, so it’s really been a nice, positive spin on what is such a tragedy—that our community here in Marin and the Bay Area from the cultural side, is really stepping up.”
The hope, Garrison says, is to make the place where so many people have fled, due to the unfortunate circumstances, not just an evacuation center, but a place where they feel comfortable. “And I believe art and music helps in the healing process, and I think that we want to provide that for everybody.”
Bread & Roses, a Marin nonprofit that provides free live music and entertainment to people in places that include hospitals, homeless shelters, detention facilities and more, realized that they might be able to boost morale among fire victims at the shelter, so put the word out to their long list of volunteer performers. The response was huge, and over three days, the organization provided evacuees with multiple professional musicians and children’s performers.
“It was just great to hear the peals of laughter from the kids,” says Marian Hubler, Bread & Roses communications manager/producer, describing Tyler Parks’ Circus of Smiles performance for nearly 40 kids and their parents. “They were transported to a different place during that time.”
Among others who donated time and resources were the San Rafael Public Library, The Bay Area Discovery Museum, the Marin Symphony, Music with Megan and more.
“It’s really amazing to see what people are willing to do,” Garrison says of the inspiring outpouring. The Marin Center was just one of many shelters set up in Marin to help evacuees, and more than 900 hosts on Airbnb have opened their homes in the region, for free, to displaced neighbors and relief workers. Meanwhile, multiple Marin restaurants continue to donate a percentage of proceeds to fire relief efforts, and music venues continue to host benefit concerts.
As Sonoma and Napa residents return north to begin to rebuild their lives, reverberating throughout Marin is the mentality that “the love in the air is thicker than the smoke.”
Art from local schools that adorned the walls of the Marin Center shelter, before all evacuees had left on Sunday, Oct. 15, expressed the following words of hope:
Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations.
You are never alone. Never forget that you are loved. Never doubt that someone surely cares about you.
To learn more about some of the Marin nonprofits that offered support, and to see how you can continue to help, visit marinhumane.org, cvnl.org, breadandroses.org and redcross.org.