On September 12th, California faced its third worst fire in history. The “Valley Fire”, fueled by harsh, dry conditions bred from years of drought, billowed forth quickly burning over 76,000 acres and 1,000 homes.
As the flames swept indiscriminately along the valley, images of the terrifying event spread just as rapidly thru the media. Once the enormity of the tragedy became clear, an amazing outpouring of support begin to form in its wake. Donations of money, food, supplies and folks willing to do whatever they could possibly do to help came forward .
I found myself whisped into the whole situation a few days after the fire first broke, on September 14th. Compassion Without Borders was asked to bring our mobile unit up to the Calistoga evacuation site to provide care for the animals belonging to displaced evacuees, many of whom were Spanish speaking.
Whenever a natural disaster hits, the poor are typically the hardest hit. Lake County is one of the five poorest counties in California, with one out of every four residents living in stark poverty. The Valley Fire hit and it hit hard. Folks that were already struggling found their homes and the little they had burnt to the ground in a matter of moments.
Trying to orient once we arrived at the evacuation site was difficult. Hundreds of people and their animals were stacked up against one another in tents. Many knew they had lost everything in the fire. Many more had no idea. They had been evacuated and there was no news, they simply had to wait and wonder.
Being able to offer some assistance, any assistance, in a situation like this is a blessing. I couldn’t get these people out of tents. I couldn’t tell them if their homes were still standing. I couldn’t begin to understand how it felt for those who had lost everything. I couldn’t rewind time and undo the entire tragedy.
But, I could help their dog or cat.
So, that is what we did. We set up our clinic and we provided care to the pets of the evacuees. We were able to help 173 animals in four days.
However, the vast majority of the care we offered was not related to the fire itself. The care we were providing was the same care that Compassion Without Borders typically provides in low-income communities – veterinary wellness and basic care to animals that have never before received these services.
The folks in Lake County are poor. Most of the animals we saw had never been to a veterinarian. They were not vaccinated. They had skin and ear issues that were untreated. They needed to be spayed and neutered.
These were not problems caused by the fire. These are deep-rooted problems that exist in impoverished communities all over our country. These are the very problems our free clinics were created to address.
And so, we did what we did best. We provided veterinary care to folks who otherwise would not be able to afford it.
And we were not the only ones. The veterinary community stepped forward in a huge way. We gained support and volunteers from other agencies ranging from the Sonoma Humane Society to the local veterinary association REVMA to UC Davis to the California Veterinary Medical Asssociation. Private veterinary practitioners just showed up on their own, wanting to help. Vet techs volunteered by the dozens.
Volunteer shifts were double and triple booked. Medical supply donations came pouring in. It was inspiring.
One bright spot in any large-scale natural disaster is the incredible show of humanity that follows. People truly want to help. However they can. They want to donate. They want to buy things for affected families. They want to volunteer.
And that’s exactly what happened. Within my small scope of the disaster, I saw it full force. My colleagues signed up for volunteer shifts by the dozens, donated supplies by the thousand of dollars, and rallied support networks for families that were truly astounding.
In fact, there was more help than could be utilized. Folks who wanted to volunteer found all shifts covered. We didn’t need any more supplies. Hospitals and local shelters that were doing the primary triage of injured and sick animals also faced a surplus of supplies and offers to help. It was unbelievable.
During those few days, as fire fighters worked around the clock to tame the blaze and thousands of families faced unthinkable devastation, my colleagues came forward in a way I have never previously experienced. I watched them shine.
That said, I must be honest.
I was also confused.
How could it be that there is this tremendous desire to help within the veterinary community, this beautiful wealth of compassion and generosity of spirit, and yet I am constantly struggling to find volunteers for our free clinics in underserved communities each month?
To date, I have not found a way to find enough reliable, consistent veterinary volunteers who want to come out and be of service in the low-income communities we serve.
Don’t get me wrong, we have some amazing volunteers. Dedicated, hard-working folks who never fail to show and give their all. We just don’t have nearly enough of them.
Admittedly, we may share some of the blame for that. Maybe we have not found the best way to reach out to the private veterinary community and actively engage them. But…we sure have tried. And, we are still trying.
I’m quite certain that the same could be said for any aspect of a humanitarian response in the face of a natural disaster. People who otherwise don’t typically donate or step forward come out of the woodwork. They give their time. They give their money. They are compelled to act. The worst of Mother Nature can bring out the best of mankind.
And so, as I sat there at that evacuation site, I wondered to myself…in the absence of ashes, without the backdrop of a large-scale natural disaster, how can we continue to harness that generosity of spirit and inclination to give of one’s time and expertise from within the veterinary community?
It is a question I find very intriguing. The communities we work in are not leveled by a solitary, crushing event such as a large fire — but they are smoldering in a constant state of need and crisis.
Their hardship is not defined by one large-scale natural disaster, it’s brought on by ongoing socioeconomic pitfalls that snag both the animals and the families that love them in complicated traps of poverty that impact every aspect of their lives.
I hope that this experience can help me to bridge the gap between the private veterinary community and the non-profit sector that I love so dearly. Being of direct service to animals and families in need is amazing work that is intensely gratifying and there must be a way, some way, to harness at least a bit of the momentum gained by this experience and channel it into the ongoing, daily need of the communities we serve.
And so, I ask you –in the absence of ashes, how does one maintain the spark of generosity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.