As Fires Raged in Southern California, Nonprofits Stepped Outside Their Lanes

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Adapted with permission from the California Association of Nonprofits (CalNonprofits)When there's an emergency, we know to look to certain nonprofits: the food bank, the shelters, the churches, the Red Cross. But many other nonprofits – and some you wouldn’t think of – stepped in to help their neighbors, going outside, above, and beyond their ordinary missions, in response to the Southern California wildfires.

There are too many examples to count, but here are a few that inspired us:

Protecting farm workers from unsafe air

Despite air quality warnings, farmworkers were still working in the fields in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, harvesting crops. When their employers weren't providing protective equipment, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) went out into the fields to distribute thousands of N95 masks to farmworkers. CAUSE also gave out masks in low-income and Latino communities and called for local governments to make disaster information more accessible by translating their websites, alerts, and social media into Spanish.

“We aren’t normally a direct service provider,” explained Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at CAUSE. “However, we acted because we saw there were communities being left behind in the emergency response, and we wanted to fill in those gaps.” Thank you, CAUSE!

Meals for First Responders and Displaced Families

The San Buenaventura Mission and the L.A. Kitchen partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide temporary kitchen space to this nonprofit so it could organize emergency meals. In a few short weeks, more than 1,500 volunteers and local celebrity chefs worked together to provide over 35,000 meals to first responders and evacuees impacted by the fires.

With schools closed, what can children and their parents do?

The fires forced many schools to close early, creating school-day and after-school challenges for their working parents. La Casa de la Raza, a community center in Santa Barbara, bailed out parents by opening their doors and providing free childcare for a week with activities and food for children in kindergarten through 8th grade. They didn't have time to raise money for it, but they knew their families needed them.

Each school day, more than 28,000 school meals are provided to students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. But those meals couldn’t happen when the schools were closed. In response, the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County partnered with the school district and other organizations to administer food pickup programs at 10 locations. Way to go.

What can a museum do in a disaster?

“When something like this fire hits, you have to throw out ‘business as usual’,” explained Denise Sindelar, Programs Director at the Ventura County Museum. At its Ag Museum in Santa Paula, the Museum made everything free. They distributed donated food, and offered activities for children while their parents used the museum as a meeting spot to check in with their friends and neighbors.

At their Ventura location, museum staff sought to provide some sense of normalcy for families staying at the nearby Red Cross shelter through activities like art classes and ornament making. The museum has also announced plans to create a series of exhibits, videos, and stories about the fire, and is asking the community to contribute their own stories of heroism, sacrifice, and tragedy.

These are but a few of what we know are many examples of how nonprofits have met the needs of their communities during these difficult times. As we shared earlier about the nonprofit response to fires in Northern California, this ability to shift quickly and pitch in isn’t “mission drift” for nonprofits. It’s answering the question: “What does our community need us to be doing right now?”

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