Story by Esther Liner
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: ‘Tis the time of year to start thinking about what we will be giving to our community at Holiday time. We are posting this story that first ran in our November 2020 issue. The Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund continues to provide essential support to our area’s most vulnerable children. Please, if you can, consider donating generously to this exceptional organization.
The late child rights advocate and children’s show host Fred Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This, dear reader, is not another scary news story. This is a story about the helpers, specifically the Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund and their many community partners who have pulled together in what has been an unprecedented year for public health and economic crises. Together this network of donors, parents, educators, health care professionals, social workers, public servants, volunteers, and passionate non-profiteers have made sure that economically vulnerable families on the Mendocino Coast have had access to much-needed resources for their health and survival. Of equal importance to the resources themselves, these families have learned that they are not alone, that there are people right here in this community, strangers even, who care for their well-being, and are ready to help. Many of the helpers are people who at some point in their past have needed to rely on the generosity of community organizations like Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund, the Fort Bragg Food Bank, Project Sanctuary, and many others, to get by. They understand how crucial a hand up can be in a person’s hour of need, and they also appreciate what a blessing it is to be in a position where they are able to help others.
A NETWORK OF CARE
“In many ways, everything we have done over the past twenty-eight years at MCCF to build a safety net for children has been a dress rehearsal for the challenges we face now,” says Annie Liner, Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund, (full disclosure: she is the author’s mother) a 100-percent volunteer-run nonprofit that famously keeps operating costs low in order to stretch every dollar that is donated to them as far as it can go. It is early October and California is in the midst of its worst wildfire season on record, parents and children are trying to adjust to the logistically challenging world of distance learning, and too many families here on the coast and across America have been economically wiped out by this crisis. As we go to press, an agreement for aid has not been reached by Congress. When it does, it could take weeks or even months for federal funding to reach the millions of families nationally who are in need. Rising to the unprecedented set of challenges the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic crisis has presented, from March of 2020 to now, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has distributed four hundred thousand dollars in crucially needed emergency funds and resources, a figure that far outpaces expenditures of previous years, to the communities of the Mendocino Coast.
The Mendocino Coast—whose local job force and economy are largely based in the hospitality industries of restaurants, hotels, and retail shops—relies on tourism dollars to keep it afloat, and was hit particularly hard by the mandatory closures of businesses the state of California deemed non-essential in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of families lost their jobs overnight and many had to close their small businesses. For a while, many people were able to get by on extended unemployment benefits offered by the federal government, but those resources ran out in July and there is no clear path back to economic recovery. Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller points out that, in March, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund was able to pay for local families’ water and sewer bills immediately. “By comparison, the city of Fort Bragg applied for a Community Development Block Program that’s federally funded and then runs through the state that provides the same kind of relief, specific to COVID-19 related financial hardships—so the whole point is, this process is supposed to be sped up, right? We’re hoping to have it by next month. We’re talking about a difference of seven months. The flexibility that Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has, to act in the moment when emergencies occur, is just so helpful. Government agencies just don’t move that quickly.” Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has also been able to source masks that city hall has then been able to distribute to city staff and the public to use as PPE [personal protective equipment].
Because each town is spread out from each other, often ten, twenty, thirty miles at a time, it is important for each coastal community to have easily accessible individual stashes of emergency supplies. Mendocino Children’s Fund distributes items such as masks, box fans with HEPA filters to help children with allergies and asthma breathe easier in the wildfire smoke and avoid respiratory infections, sleeping bags, school clothes, and emergency gas cards. Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund makes sure these resources are received by their community partners, such as the public schools, Mendocino Coast Clinics, and Fort Bragg Food Bank, and on the South Coast, its partner, Action Network, who can then distribute these items to families in need.
FORT BRAGG FOOD BANK:
NURTURING AND SUSTAINING YOUNG LIVES
“MCCF has helped us to continue funding for our Kid’s Boxes, which parents can pick up weekly,” says Amanda Friscia, Director of the Fort Bragg Food Bank. “They’re filled with fresh, nutritious food like eggs, milk, and produce, and we try to stay conscientious about including the kinds of items kids love to eat.” Ms. Friscia has children of her own, as well as regular contact with families with children who use the food bank as a resource, so she has a good sense of what foods go over well with little ones. Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has also supplemented these boxes with non-food essentials like toothbrushes and cotton face masks children can decorate to their liking. Ms. Friscia says they distribute about two hundred Kid’s Boxes a week.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the Fort Bragg Food Bank’s volunteers, whose help is crucial for the distribution of food to the public, had to excuse themselves from working. “Most of our volunteers were retirees who are age sixty-five and older, who felt they had the time to give back to their community,” says Ms. Friscia. “But their age makes them especially susceptible to COVID-19, and we all felt it was for the best that they not put themselves at risk.” Meanwhile, Fort Bragg Food Bank saw a 30 percent increase in community traffic between March and April and went from being open three days a week to five days a week just so that they could accommodate everyone. They quickly pivoted to a drive-up program, where seniors and others who were at high risk of contracting COVID-19 could pick up boxes of food safely. They also changed their processes for indoor service for those clients who are without cars, limiting the number of people who could go in at one time to select their food, providing masks, hand sanitizer, and practicing physical distancing. Luckily, Fort Bragg Food Bank soon had their pool of volunteers replenished by younger people, who finding themselves unemployed, and perhaps short on money, but long on free time, wanted to give back to their community. Ms. Friscia says that while Fort Bragg Food Bank is well supported and funded, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund’s ability to give them non-food related essentials like shampoo, toothbrushes, tents, and sleeping bags to distribute to their clients has been a big help. Fort Bragg Food Bank has had several fire evacuees from Covelo show up in recent weeks, and thanks to Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund they have been able to give them more than food. “Imagine you’ve had to evacuate a fire area with basically the clothes on your back and then have to spend the gas money to drive all the way to the coast. Gas isn’t cheap, neither are diapers, if you forgot them for your kids or ran out, neither is lodging—a lot of people had to stay in their cars or stay with friends and family. If we can give people MCCF-provided gas cards and sleeping bags in addition to food, we know we’re helping them from further diminishing what little cash they have,” Ms. Friscia points out. “The community’s response during the pandemic and now also [during] the wildfires, has been remarkable, and we feel so wonderfully supported by the people and businesses of this area,” says Ms. Friscia. For example, Fort Bragg Food Babk is able to pick up loads of imperfect produce daily from Harvest Market, another important community partner with Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund.
A PARTNER STEPS UP
“I think our values at Harvest are pretty well aligned with MCCF. None of us want to see children and families go hungry, and really, in a country that has so much food, no one should ever have to,” says Jennifer Bosma, Vice President of Harvest Market and Harvest at Mendosa’s. Her family’s grocery stores, founded by her father Tom Honer thirty-five years ago, are one of the biggest employers on the coast. It must be noted here that the Harvest Market staff have done a stellar job of working exceptionally hard with increased customer volume throughout the pandemic. They have handled the stress of working with an oft-times on-edge public with true grace and grit. Many locals have felt safest shopping at Harvest Market during the pandemic because the market has gone above and beyond in taking measures to enable social distancing, enforcing a mask policy, providing special senior-citizens-only hours, and keeping the store sanitized. Harvest has also provided free curbside pickup service for anyone who has a compromised immune system or health concerns that prevent them from being able to wear a mask, and have greatly expanded their weekly home delivery service. Since March, Ms. Bosma has been able to order thousands of dollars’ worth of diapers for Mendocono Coast Children’s Fund, at cost, to distribute to the community. Additionally, Harvest has made a large donation to help with the cost of these diapers. Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund is also one of four local recipients of the ten-cent-per-paper-bag credit, which Harvest Market continued to gift to them, even after health concerns meant they could no longer hand out bag tokens to customers to donate to the cause of their choice. Since 2013 Harvest Market’s bag token program has provided a cumulative $75,710 for MCCF.
MOMS HELPING MOMS
Heather Baird, who has been MCCF’s resource coordinator for the last five years, knows first-hand how lonely and vulnerable being a low-income single parent on the coast can be. A little over ten years ago, after the birth of her son, she started the group Mendo Coast Mamas, as a means for local mothers of young children to meet up, go on walks, share and relate through their experiences as mothers, and to pool resources. Ms. Baird points out that being a new mother, especially if you’re single or in an abusive relationship, can be incredibly scary and hard. “The coast is a beautiful place, but people are so spread out, as far as where they live, that if you don’t have an in-built support network of family and friends, it can feel really lonely. I started Mendo Coast Mamas because as a new mom I needed support and friendship, and I figured I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way.” When Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund learned of Mendo Coast Mamas, they offered to be the fiscal sponsor and hired Heather to be their resource coordinator.
Heather started to organize clothing swaps, where mothers could trade gently used and outgrown outfits and toys for items that were better suited to where their children presently were in their development. The moms were also able to swap clothes for each other amongst themselves, which as anyone who has ever done a clothing swap knows, is not only economically practical, it can also be lots of fun. These swaps became so popular that Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund rented a storage locker where things like donated playpens, bunk beds, toys, and clothing could be stowed away and then become available when there was a mother in need.
As resource coordinator, Ms. Baird is known for lending a compassionate ear to the parents who are referred to her, in addition to directing them to the community resources that can help them. She remembers all too well the emotional and mental toll economic instability can take on you as a parent. It’s nerve-wracking not knowing how you’re going to make rent or pay a utility bill, or if you’re going to have enough food or clothes for your kids. “I don’t want to say that I offer counseling services because I certainly don’t. But when a mom calls and she’s like, at the end of her rope, you know? ‘What do I do? Where do I go? Who do I talk to? I feel stuck.’ I really try to take the time to connect with her, connect her to other moms in the community, and let her know that resources are available.”
PAY IT FORWARD
As of July, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has been sponsoring a Free Thrift Store for parents and children, which is managed by Heather Baird and her team of volunteers. MCCF board member, Omie Berhns, has made the conference room at the local Motel 6, which she manages, available for this purpose. Paul Bunyan Thrift Store donated nine clothing racks, and Judy Martin from State of the Ark Thrift Store has brought over truckloads of beautiful, gently used children’s clothing. The store also has clothing and shoes for adults. So far, says Ms. Baird, no one seems to have taken unfair advantage or exploited the fact that the thrift store is free. “It’s an honor system. People take what they need, no one is hoarding items. There’s a donation box for cash gifts that benefit Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund, but people are in no way obligated to put money in. Some people do, some people don’t, there’s no pressure either way,” says Ms. Baird.
“I just can’t stand to think of families going without clothes for their little ones,” says Judy Martin, who has been managing State of the Ark Thrift Store for twenty years now, and is also executive director of the Mendocino Coast Humane Society, which proceeds from the Ark go to support. “I’d much rather kids’ clothes go to whichever families need them than try to turn a profit on these clothes at their expense. There aren’t really any affordable places to get kids’ clothes on the coast, and not everyone can afford to drive to the nearest box store, or whatever. Plenty of families rely on thrift stores for things like jackets and pants.” With the support of her board and staff, Ms. Martin has decided to redirect all donations of children’s clothes that are of acceptable quality to the MCCF Free Thrift Store. Ms. Baird has also sourced nice quality adult clothing for the Free Thrift Store as well, so that low-income parents may have nice clothes for attending job interviews, looking professional in the workplace, and just generally feeling good about themselves.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Of major concern to Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund and its many partners is the rise of instances of domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Children are specifically vulnerable to abuse during COVID-19. Research shows that increased stress levels among parents are often a major predictor of physical abuse and neglect of children. Stressed parents may be more likely to respond to their children’s anxious behaviors or demands in aggressive or abusive ways. The support systems that many at-risk parents rely on, such as extended family, childcare, and schools, religious groups, and other community organizations, are no longer available in many areas due to stay-at-home orders. Child protection agencies are experiencing strained resources with fewer workers available, making them unable to conduct home visits in areas with stay-at-home orders. Since children are not going to school, teachers and school counselors are unable to witness the signs of abuse and report to the proper authorities. Also, many at-risk families may not have access to the technology children need to stay connected with friends and extended family.” According to the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Score) Aware organization: “a consensus of scientific research demonstrates that cumulative adversity, especially when experienced during critical and sensitive periods of development, is a root cause of some of the most harmful, persistent, and expensive health challenges facing our state and nation.” So, while the U.S. has been experiencing the public health crisis of COVID-19, it has also exacerbated a secondary public health crisis centered around the lasting adverse effects of domestic abuse. Without intervention and prevention, 90 percent of children who are raised in domestically violent and abusive households go on to either perpetrate or experience abuse in their adult relationships, passing on this destructive behavior to the next generation.
Lia Holbrook, Coast Services Director for Project Sanctuary, a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy, support, and intervention for victims of domestic and sexual assault says that as national domestic abuse numbers have risen with the pandemic, so have local ones. “Incidences of abuse have both increased and intensified. In homes where it was already occurring, we can see the incidences of violence and abuse have gotten stronger and more intense. Especially in the first couple of months of the pandemic, we saw our call volume here on the coast go up by 150 percent. The same happened with restraining orders, they went up between 120 and 150 percent.” We know that on average it takes a woman seven attempts before she successfully leaves her abuser for good. Ms. Holbrook points out that it is incredibly difficult for women and children who are in domestically abusive situations to get away from their abuser during times of economic instability.
“I am so very grateful to have MCCF as one of our partners here on the coast. They are incredible at being connectors of resources. They make sure that all the people who are providing direct services to the community know about what one another is doing. So many people are working so hard and so fast in their various fields helping people, that they don’t actually have the time to take a breath and look around to see what other people are doing. MCCF makes it far easier for people to connect with each other.” Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund also provides Project Sanctuary with a specific SOS Fund, which is money that can be used to meet the immediate needs of their clients. For example, money from the SOS Fund has been used to help women pay for car repairs so they can get to work, or in some instances to move their children away from the danger of their abuser. Funds have also been used to pay utility bills for clients, so that their children may stay warm during the winter. Other funding from Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has been used to send children to summer camp where they can get a reprieve from their stressful home situations and also for self-esteem building after-school activities like sports, dance, music, and the arts.
RISING TO EACH NEW CHALLENGE
WHILE EMBRACING THE UNKNOWN
If you look at the COVID-19 statistics for Mendocino County, you will quickly see that there have been nearly three times as many cases in the Latino community as there have been amongst the non-Latino population. Teresa Rodriguez, an intervention specialist with the Migrant Education Program in Fort Bragg points out that for her clients, who due to their immigration status do not benefit from government assistance programs, have to take whatever work is available to them and often find themselves in positions where PPE isn’t available and labor conditions are questionable. Ms. Rodriguez has been working in partnership with Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund for thirteen years. She says that before she was a community outreach advocate she herself was a recipient of some of Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund’s resources. “When my children were very young, thanks to MCCF’s support, they were able to participate in afterschool classes, summer programs, and received shoes and clothing when they needed them.” Ms. Rodriguez says that she finds Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund incredibly easy to work with and that they are a trusted name in the Latino community. She acts as a mediator—between families whose English language skills are still developing and Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund—to make sure her clients are getting access to the resources available to them.
It’s not just coastal communities that Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund helps. Since 2015, wildfires have become a perennial disaster in Northern California. “We have been incredibly fortunate that the wildfires haven’t affected the coast as badly as they have our neighbors inland. We didn’t feel we could just stand by and watch other communities go without when we had some resources to share,” says Annie Liner. Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has helped the inland Mendocino communities of Willits, Ukiah, Potter Valley, and Redwood Valley, and neighboring Lake County, Santa Rosa, and of course, evacuees from the Camp Fire which burned the town of Paradise to the ground. They have sheltered fire evacuees and sent funds and resources when they could. They have trained community groups and offered technical assistance in preparation on the coast for future fire events. In March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic meant personal protective equipment was difficult to come by for medical professionals, the Mendo-Lake Fire Relief Recovery Center remembered how helpful Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund has been in past crises. In response, they sent over 1,280 N-95 masks, and a pickup truck’s worth of donated diapers to the Mendocino Coast. Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall personally met Danilla Sands at the Mendo-Lake Disaster Center in Redwood Valley and then drove these items to MCCF’s community partner, Mendocino Coast Clinics. There, Fifth District Supervisor Ted Williams, who has worked with Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund for years, met Sheriff Kendall to help unload his truck. Mendocino Coast Clinics helped get the diapers to pediatric patients and the Fort Bragg Food Bank and shared the N-95 masks with key medical and emergency first responders, nurses, and doctors. Mendocino Coast Clinics has been a key community partner for Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund for many years. The Clinics serve the Mendocino Coast’s Medi-Cal ! patients and quite literally have their finger on the pulse when it comes to coastal families in need. Lucresha Renteria has been with the Coast Clinics for twenty-six years; she started as a Spanish Language Interpreter and is now the Executive Director.
“I think MCCF has been a blessing to the Mendocino Coast,” says Ms. Renteria.
“They have a great infrastructure to work with as far as being agile, flexible, and creative in their problem-solving.” Ms. Renteria says one of the most valuable ways Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund lends support to Mendocino Coast Clinics is by providing transportation funding in the form of gas cards and hotel vouchers for families whose children have to go out of town to receive specialized medical care or emergency procedures. The expense of several nights spent in even the cheapest of San Francisco hotels and the cost of gas to get there can be enough to easily wipe out a family’s rent and grocery budget for a month or more. A family shouldn’t have to choose between feeding and housing their children or getting them medical care, but for too many coastal residents who are living paycheck to paycheck (if they are lucky enough to have held on to their jobs during the pandemic shutdown), it is a stark reality. Mendocino Coast Clinics has become the medical transportation organizer for all families in need, not just their own patients. While Mendocino Coast Clinics is accountable to Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund for any donated funding they use for medical transportation, they can decide on a case-by-case basis what kind of financial support best serves each family. They have the resources on hand so that families do not have to go through an arduous reimbursement or application process. In return, Mendocino Coast Clinics is a receiving and distribution spot for Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund. They can receive MCCF-purchased shipments of thermometers and masks and get them to parents or local partners like the Fort Bragg Schools.
STAYING CONNECTED DURING DISTANCE LEARNING
Speaking of school, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund was able to purchase and distribute an abundance of Levi’s jeans, sweat pants, cozy hoodies, tennis shoes, socks and backpacks for middle school- and high school-aged children up and down the coast and inland to Comptche for the fall of 2020. Even if students aren’t attending school in person, many have grown over the summer and are in need of new duds. “It’s wonderful that MCCF has been able to provide these clothes for so many of our students. The money that families save on not having to buy these items can go towards more crucial necessities like rent and groceries,” says Fort Bragg Unified School District Superintendent Becky Walker.
Concerned about children who lacked access to internet or books of their own while schools are on a distance-learning model, Mendocino Rotary generously funded a grant to Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund to buy books for children who could benefit from reading to a family member or having a family member read to them. Reading benefits children educationally and emotionally, empowering them to master a world of fantasy and facts. The Mendocino Rotary/MCCF team then turned to former MCCF board member, Christie Olson Day, owner of Gallery Bookshop and Bookwinkle’s Children’s Books in Mendocino, to work with the teaching staff to hand pick the best book for each child. This perfect round circle of helping kids and families while at the same time supporting local business is exactly the kind of mutually beneficial efforts MCCF and our local nonprofits specialize in.
WHO HELPS THE HELPERS?
At the core of Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund’s values is the recognition that children don’t get to choose who their parents are, or their parents’ financial circumstances. They shouldn’t be punished or have to go without just because their family has fallen on hard times. The MCCF board is comprised of a group of women who are committed to serving their community as best they can. Margaret Fox has been head of catering at Harvest Market for decades and is our nutrition expert. Zida Borcich is a mom, grandmother, and business owner with her finger on small businesses as she publishes Real Estate Magazine. Omie Behrns is the manager of Motel 6 and has partnered with Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund for years to respond to people in distress due to personal problems or wildfire who need emergency lodging. Sasha Graham is a nurse practitioner and mom of two teens who acts as MCCF’s public health expert. Sherrill Spires, pharmacist at Rite Aid, sees the impact of illness and anxiety daily on young families. Annie Liner, volunteer executive director for the last twenty years has a background in community social work, finance, and organizational development. She believes that helping local agencies say yes is one of the most important things we can do to strengthen our coastal community.
At the end of the day and often very long nights, Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for us all to be more caring and careful. Annie says, “We always get drafted for the big lessons. None of us would have the courage to volunteer. Eight months in, we are using everything we have learned in the last twenty-eight years to help our community, families, children, and environment respond effectively as we face daily unknowns and challenges.” It is because of community members like you, dear reader, that Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund is able to support and assist so many of the local agencies that they do. If you feel, in the words of Mr. Rogers’ mother, that you want to be one of the “helpers,” you may do so by making a donation at www.MCCF.info or by mail to MCCF, P.O. Box 1616, Mendocino, CA, 95460. If you have other resources such as time and talent, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find ways you can get involved with helping your local community. REM
If you are moved to donate to or volunteer for the Children’s Fund or any of the partner organizations in this story, or to support our for-profit allies, know that every dollar given or spent makes a difference to a fellow human. People are struggling to pay rents and buy food for their families while navigating the complexities of homeschooling and COVID-19 dangers, smoke, and sorrow. Until jobs open back up, all of us who are able to will have to pull together to help our community through this time.
Mendocino Coast Children’s Fund: mccf.info; 707.937.6111
Mendo Coast Mamas: facebook.com/mendocoastmamas; 607.437.8465
Free Thrift Store: Open W, Th, F 2–4:00 p.m.; Motel 6 Conference Room (upstairs)
Mendocino Coast Clinics: mendocinocoastclinics.org; 707.964.1251
Project Sanctuary: Franklin at Pine, Fort Bragg; projectsanctuary.org; 707.961.1507
Harvest Markets: Fort Bragg and Mendocino; harvestmarkets.com; 707.964.1700
Fort Bragg Food Bank: fortbraggfoodbank.org; 707.964.9404
Gallery Bookshop: Main Street, Mendocino; gallerybookshop.com; 707.937.2665