UKIAH, CA, 8/2/22 — More than a year after the owner sold the space United Disaster Relief of Northern California had been renting in Redwood Valley, the nonprofit has received a major use permit from the city planning commission for its new Ukiah location, where it had been operating in an emergency capacity following the Hopkins fire. The highly-organized space belies the short time the center has been running out of Ukiah; but the goal has always been to provide calm for Northern California residents coping with chaos following wildfires, housefires, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters.
Founder Danilla Sands called the move “a blessing in disguise.” Last June, she and five volunteers — mostly seniors — had to move an entire store and warehouse’s worth of supplies out of their former building in just a month. But though the organization has gone from a 4,000 square foot warehouse to a 900 square foot one, United Disaster Relief (UDRNC) now has a 7,200 square foot total space, with a number of rooms that mirrors the amount of tasks the organization takes on to aid those recovering from disaster. Community involvement has also increased dramatically, from those five volunteers to a team of nearly 30. In the past year alone, UDRNC helped an estimated 3,000 clients.
Sands began the recovery organizing efforts that would turn into her nonprofit back in 2017, after the Redwood fire hit her community hard. In addition to organizing donations and providing supplies, she began listening to the scanner and reporting fire news on social media. She also showed up to local government meetings and asked pointed questions, reminding people of deadlines to receive aid and grant funding.
“Many people in the audience knew me right away as someone that would advocate for them and be loud for them,” she said.
In the five years since, UDRNC’s advocacy has expanded in leaps and bounds. It’s the only Mendocino County support service that offers aid to people at every stage, from the immediate aftermath through their long-term recovery three years post-disaster.
“We do a lot of the county and the city’s work,” said Sands, who is unpaid and clocks between 40 and 80 hours at the center in a given week. “[People] can come here. We help them one-on-one.”
On entering the Ukiah facility, survivors are greeted by a large reception desk and waiting area with sofas. United Disaster Relief also offers free sunscreen, masks, and other necessities to anyone who stops by. Down the hallway are multiple offices for private meetings with organizations like the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), which don’t have Ukiah offices; an in-progress computer room that offers a private space for clients to work on funding and housing applications with volunteers; a decompression room with a stocked drink fridge and microwave; a room with a massage chair and soothing purple walls; a conference room “where we ask people for money”; laundry machines and printers; and the crown jewel, a free store full of furniture, clothing, home goods, shoes, and donated food for those recovering to take whatever they may need.
Survivors can also write down unmet needs on a whiteboard, so others can help them out should they have access to those supplies. When one family walks through the door, Sands exclaims, “I think I may have an end table for you!” Another volunteer sits down with them to work on an aid application.
“Each [volunteer] has their unique talent, skill, or passion when they come here,” Sands said. “Some want to fold clothes, some want to run the forklift, some do the office work.”
One volunteer, Debbie Christenson, gravitates toward organizing the space: “Chaos is not my thing.” Eileen Bostwick, who spent years working professionally for UDRNC’s fiscal sponsor North Coast Opportunities, Inc, brings her talents to administrative work and grant research. Another volunteer, Dana Kelly, focuses her energy on welcoming survivors: “I’m a hospitality person.”
But across the board, unprompted, each volunteer sings their praises of Sands’ many abilities.
“I can’t say enough about this woman,” Bostwick said. “She is incredible. She … cares so deeply that each [person] get everything they’re absolutely entitled to, with no roadblocks.”
Christenson agreed, saying, “She knows everything that comes through those doors.”
For Kelly — one of several volunteers who has lost a home to fire themselves — the empowerment that comes from working with Sands and UDRNC is critical. She’s been volunteering here for years, since receiving aid from the organization, and used to regularly volunteer five days a week.
“The goal is to be self-sufficient to get strong through your own core, but she gives you the confidence to do so,” Kelly explained. “But she also doesn’t baby you. She’s going to just nudge you along.”
A lot has been accomplished. Sands’ next big goal is raising funds to buy the building UDRNC is currently renting, a former veterinary office at 1240 Airport Park Boulevard, from its “very supportive” owners. The total fundraising goal is $250,000. In 2020, Mendocino County had a population of around 87,000.
“If each one of them donated $3, we’d be set,” Sands said. “We’d meet our goal to secure the building. If each one of those people invest in their community, and know that someday they could possibly be impacted by a manmade or natural disaster or their family and friends or coworker [could be], or maybe they already know someone that has … it would be ours.”
Though the planning commission voted unanimously to approve the building’s major use permit at last week’s meeting, some members expressed concerns that the backyard storage could be “unsightly” in a neighborhood that’s mostly zoned for restaurants and retailers (such as the Panda Express next door).
“When we have an emergency and you’re providing supplies to somebody, you’re not worried about keeping it orderly,” Michelle Johnson of the City of Ukiah Planning Commission said. “There’s just a different environment when you’re providing supply services after a disaster, and we have to look at the commercial businesses in that area and how that affects them.”
As of right now, the planning commission will be requiring UDRNC to build a fence or concrete partition to shield any outdoor storage it wants to utilize from rail trail view, in accordance with zoning ordinances. But a project like that could cost around $10,000.
“We would love some billionaire to come along, believe in our cause, and donate a metal building,” Sands said.
For now, though, UDRNC’s volunteers prioritize providing the best experience they can for people suffering after a disaster.
“Just encouraging them and letting them know that they will get through it as a survivor is really, really important — but it’s also true,” Sands said. “I’ve seen the click after two, three years … and I don’t even recognize them anymore, because they’re wearing their hairstyle. They’re wearing their clothes now. It’s so beautiful. That weight … is still there with them, but … it’s a beautiful thing.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.