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An Act of Kindness that Changed Hundreds of Lives in Santa Rosa

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Sometimes actions that make the biggest difference start as very small gestures. It’s when these small gestures blossom into community-fueled acts of kindness that lives are changed.

Americans are very aware of the tragic loss that Northern California’s Sonoma County has endured. In early October, the community of Santa Rosa experienced a destructive wildfire that was fueled by hot, dry weather coupled with unusual Diablo winds. If you are not among the Central Valley residents who had friends or family members touched by the tragedy, you likely know of husbands and sons who tirelessly worked fire lines. To date, this natural disaster has topped the list of most the most destructive wildfires in California history.

During the days and weeks leading up to the containment of this wildfire, forests were leveled, homes were destroyed and human lives were lost, all of which hit very close to home for one Santa Rosa native and current Lodi resident, Jessica Kerns. It was during the early morning hours, at 4:00 a.m., that she received a call from her boyfriend, Brandon, informing her that her beloved hometown was in flames. As Jessica watched the news and spoke to her family in Santa Rosa as they evacuated, the gravity of the situation became overwhelmingly clear.

Lodi residents know Jessica best as part of the dynamic and talented So Eventful event planning team. Friends and family know her best as someone with a go-getter personality and a heart of gold. As the destructive scenario unfolded, her close friend and employer, Marisa Manna-Ferrell, was well aware of Jessica’s roots in the Santa Rosa community.

“My heart went out to Jessica and her family, but I was also amazed at Jessica’s immediate reaction to find a way to help where she could,” Marisa recalled. “She told me she was planning on finding a way to help those who were displaced by the fire. And I knew she would do exactly that because she has such a giving spirit and let’s-do-this attitude.”

Fueled by a determination to help, Jessica emptied her dresser and the closet of her very supportive boyfriend, packed the items in four boxes and hit the road. Her next stop was Walmart, where she bought all the essentials that her budget would allow. Her ultimate goal was to set up a donation center that could offer victims the few things she had to give. Knowing she needed a home base that was close to Santa Rosa, she reached out to her past employer, DoubleTree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, and asked if they would be willing to donate a room that could act as a pop-up donations center. DoubleTree wholeheartedly agreed to help.

Inspired by her friend’s mission, Marisa set to work using the reach of her business, So Eventful, and the power of networking and social media to spread the word of Jessica’s donation center. Within 48 hours, Jessica’s 400-square-foot room was bursting with donations, prompting the DoubleTree management to move her operation to their 5,000-square-foot ballroom. “Every inch of that space was packed with donations from diapers and baby food to clothing that was categorized by size, type and gender. It had gone from a small initiative to a huge project literally overnight.”

As people flooded into the donation center, their personal stories of loss and devastation were heartbreaking. Families were awakened in the wee morning hours by authorities or neighbors pounding on their doors and advising them to leave immediately. Many Santa Rosa residents got out just minutes ahead of the fire. But through it all the kindness and outpouring of love from San Joaquin County, a community two hours away from the fire, shined bright. “We know we helped hundreds of families and none of it would have been possible without Jessica’s determination, many volunteers and the generosity of multiple communities,” Marisa added.

Business owners such as Craig Ledbetter from Vino Farms and the Lange family from LangeTwins Winery jumped in to help by setting up local drop-off sites in Lodi.  The participating drop-off points for donations in the community are LangeTwins Winery, Klinker Brick Winery, Van Ruiten Winery, Jessies Grove Winery and Scotto’s Wine and Cider. Carmel Long and her team from Elite Wine Shipping, along with Taylor Kininmonth from Sip Shuttle, worked together to keep trucks loaded with more than 40 pallets of donations flowing into the DoubleTree at Rohnert Park.

“The stories from the people we helped were so moving,” Marisa confirmed. “We cried many tears of sorrow, but tears of joy too when we saw the deep gratitude the evacuees had. All of the victims who visited the So Eventful donation center were so humble and most were so concerned about ‘taking too much.’ It gave me such a valuable perspective on life.”

Ten days, over one million dollars in donated items and more than 75 volunteers later, Jessica’s donation center finally was able to see that they had done all that they could. “October 18 marked the last day of the donation center that was inspired by our amazing, kind-hearted, thoughtful, principal wedding and event planner, Jessica Kerns,” Marisa noted. “I personally want to say ‘Thank you’ to all of the incredible people who supported Jessica’s considerate gesture and worked to make the project an undeniable success. For all of us, this whole experience was living proof that, even in the toughest of times, kindness and perseverance win.”

Sources: businessinsider.com and pressdemocrat.com.