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United Way of Northern California's Blog

When life's trajectory changes, put up a Christmas tree

Christmas tree 1 Christmas tree 2  Rebecca Dominguez

November 24, 2021

On a boat, in waters far away from home, disconnected from the internet and news, Rebecca and Benjamin finally had time to unwind from their demanding schedules. Enjoying quality time with their children, family and close friends, they were unaware of the life altering events unfolding in Redding California, that would soon impact theirs as well.

“We were on our dream vacation and learned that there was a fire that started in Whiskeytown and the winds were not favorable, it was headed our way." The next day the life trajectory altering phone calls, messages and photos of the devastation came Rebecca and Benjamin's way. In their neighborhood alone, more than 100 homes had burnt that night, including theirs. 

Coming home to a pile of debris, Rebecca recalls thinking: "You can always find a place to get clothes, but where will we lay our heads, where will my children sleep?" The first few months after the fire, support was offered in various ways. Friends who hosted them, others bringing food or items for their children, and churches and local agencies providing blankets, clothing and practical items. 
"I received a personal phone call from United Way of Northern California inviting me to fill out a grant application. They said:' We know you think you do not need it, but please let us serve you." Rebecca applied and within a couple of weeks received emergency relief funding which was very helpful to their recovery journey.

Anticipating the challenges of the holiday season, Rebecca and Benjamin decided to keep their family tradition to get a tree from Mt. Lassen. This time however, they got two trees. One for their rental home and one to place on their burnt lot. The tree was secured in a bucket of rocks, and decorated with a handful of ornaments, and solar lights that only made it half-way down the tree.
The next morning, to their great surprise, they learned that neighbors who did not loose their homes had added notes with well-wishes, lights, tinsels and ornaments. 

Today, more than three years after the Carr fire swept through Redding, Rebecca and Benjamin are living in their newly build home, slowly recovering from their losses and counting their many blessings. As we near Christmas, a tree will be lit in their front yard. A neighborhood tradition that begun when their life's trajectory changed. 


When help and hope meet, recovery happens

MelissaOctober 7, 2021

“How will I ever recover, I lost all I had?”

 “I don’t know what to do next.”

Melissa Jamison hears that question and comment frequently as a member of United Way of Northern California’s disaster recovery team. Melissa returned home to Butte County from the Midwest with a heart to help after the Camp Fire. She is representative of United Way’s staff, whose mission is to be there for the community in times of disaster.

Melissa told the story of young family that lost their home in a recent wildfire. Their lives had been turned upside down; the wondered whether they ever again experience stability? The family received a $500 Emergency Financial Assistance gift card from UWNC within weeks of the loss of their home. That brought hope – help was available and accessible.

After a year of living in a temporary housing situation, the family learned it qualified for permanent housing. This happy moment was quickly overshadowed by the reality that the comfortable furniture and appliances they once owned were destroyed by the fire. That’s when UWNC was able to step in again.

Hope and help met when Melissa and our disaster services team provided this family with basic household items to get them started in their new home and towards recovery. “I was then able to connect them to the Hope Center and get them kitchen supplies and other things they needed.” Melissa recalls with a smile on her face. “I have seen United Way of Northern California over and over, step in and take care of people and get them into a place where they can have the right footing to go forward.”

If you or a loved one experienced 50% or more residential loss due to recent disasters in Butte, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tehama or Trinity counties, Melissa and our disaster services team would like to help guide you towards available resources in your recovery journey.  


Carr Fire Survivor Loses Home, Gains New Perspective on Life

June 18, 2021Woman Knitting

Stephanie was evacuated at 3:00 a.m. when the Carr Fire hit Keswick. With two dogs and no family in the area, it was difficult to find a place to stay. On top of that, Stephanie had to figure out how to pay for her extended hotel stay and mortgage on a cashier’s salary. With a little money from her mother, her first few days at Motel 6 were taken care of. “I took my dogs, medication, extra pair of work clothes and shoes. That’s all I had.” Stephanie continued to work as a cashier at Holiday Market as the fire blazed on. When it was eventually extinguished, she and her dogs would not have a place to return to. Stephanie’s home was destroyed.

Later, Stephanie visited the Local Assistance Center, a one-stop-shop with critical services for wildfire survivors, where she signed up for resources with United Way of Northern California (UWNC). “United Way paid for my hotel room until insurance money came through,” said Stephanie, “It was a huge help!” In addition to that, she was surprised to find that UWNC had $1,000 checks for Carr Fire survivors, which helped cover other expenses. For example, Stephanie and other survivors staying in hotels had no place to cook or store food, forcing them to eat out for many of their meals.

“I didn’t know there was so much help out there. I had insurance money but it wasn’t coming yet and that’s where United Way helped me. I was very under-insured. When you have an old mobile, they can only insure you for so much. I didn’t have nearly enough and [the money] came later than it should have,” said Stephanie. In addition to providing financial aid, UWNC staff person, Verenda Rodriguez, worked tirelessly to ensure survivors like Stephanie were taken care of in their time of need. “Anytime I asked for something it was there. With the hotel, it was immediate. She really went above and beyond to make sure I had a place to stay for the night.”

After three years of living in a small camper on the property where her home once stood, Stephanie received the keys to her new home in Keswick. Shortly after, she was surprised- yet again- to be contacted by UWNC with an offer to help furnish her new home. “It was like Christmas. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. Just a little bit over time. I never had a family. I always paid for everything myself, never took a handout. It was hard to get used to my new home. For the first month, I still stayed in the little camper on my property because, I don’t know, I was kind of shell shocked.”

But to Stephanie, the help from United Way of Northern California was more than a check or some furniture. “I’ve been on my own since I was 14. I never thought anything like this really existed. I thought it was just something you saw on tv. I’m 52 years old and I was starting to get jaded. I was starting to feel bad about society and the people in it, [but] there are good people out there. People have big hearts. It impacted me by changing who I am. That’s what I really got out of this.”


How Karen’s Tax Season was Stress-Free with VITA

June 10, 2021Woman sitting at table

Karen, a local to the North State and two time VITA tax preparation client, is used to being independent. “I’ve never been in a position where I needed to ask for a ‘handout,’” she said. But in recent years, paying $250 for tax preparation services became too much. “I was putting it on a VISA and struggling to pay it off.” Thankfully, a friend told her about United Way of Northern California’s (UWNC) free tax preparation program, VITA, and she reached out.

“It felt embarrassing but they didn’t make me feel embarrassed at all. I just really appreciated all the assistance that I got. It was fantastic.” The first year Karen used the VITA service, she interacted with a number of the UWNC staff in person. “Everyone was very patient and helpful. They made the process as simple as possible.” When covid-19 forced services like VITA to go virtual the following year, Karen was initially uncertain how that would go without being “tech savvy.” 

During the process, Karen made an error that required her documents be reprocessed. “It was difficult because of covid-19,” she said. “[But], the online service went really smoothly. Everybody was so nice.” The VITA team took care of everything and made sure everything was in order for Karen to receive her maximum refund. Karen looks forward to using the VITA service again next year if she qualifies “because it was such a great experience and everyone was so kind.”

If you are still in need of assistance with your taxes or if you have questions about UWNC’s free tax preparation services, call our office at 530.241.7521. We look forward to serving you!


Delta Fire Survivors Receive New Homes

May 20, 2021 Chad Scott

In recent years, the North State has made headlines for presidentially declared major disasters such as the Carr and Camp Fires. In addition to an influx of generous donations from all over the world, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) provided relief to survivors of these fires in the form of funding, temporary housing, and more. Unfortunately the Delta Fire, a 63,000 acre fire that started in Shasta County only five weeks after the Carr Fire began, did not receive the same response.

“Our clients with the Delta Fire are in a unique position. Because it was not the Carr Fire, they did not qualify for some of the state and federal resources that our Carr Fire victims may have qualified for….It’s required a whole lot of effort to find enough funding for these families to build,” said Chad Scott, Executive Director of Shasta Builders’ Exchange. Finding volunteers to make the drive to the rural rebuild locations has also been a challenge.

Scott said that they are still currently working with a couple of clients who are survivors of the 2018 Delta Fire, each with their own unique situation. “One family was insured, they did pay out. They didn’t have enough money to rebuild what they lost. So they will be contributing all the leftover insurance money and we’re going to cover the gap for them to recover.”

Scott joined the NorCal Recovery team to assist with Carr Fire recovery, and two years later he is still playing a major role in helping wildfire survivors recover in the North State. “The role of the Shasta Builders’ Exchange is to operate as a volunteer project manager for these families for the recovery process,” Scott said, “So that could be clearing up titles, processing their [building] permits,...finding enough subcontractors and suppliers for the projects, volunteer coordination, and getting their home finalized and ready to move in.”

“It’s only through the support of local churches and organizations like the United Way that [these families] had any opportunity to rebuild on their site on their own.” As the third anniversary of the Delta Fire approaches, Scott hopes to see their clients moved into new homes where they can make memories with their families

If you would like to contribute to wildfire recovery efforts in the North State, visit NorCalUnited.co/donate.


How VITA Saves Barbara Time & Money

April 21, 2021Barbara Powell

Barbara Powell moved to Redding in 2013. A veteran and former business owner, Barbara never had to file taxes on her own until three years ago. “I completely got it wrong,” she admitted. “The IRS even wrote me a letter.” Fortunately, Barbara learned about United Way’s free tax preparation service, VITA, through the Veteran’s Administration.

“It was such a relief,” Barbara shared. The appointments only take between forty-five minutes to an hour depending on the extent of a person’s needs, which she really appreciates because it gives her more time to focus on school. “It’s a really organized program and really helpful, personable staff….I didn’t have to pay for the service and you find out right away how much your refund is.” Barbara said that she was pleasantly surprised to find out she was getting money back two years in a row thanks to the team at VITA.

This year, using VITA is easier than ever. “I just dropped it off and picked it up later when I was ready.” However, even with the added convenience, juggling school and getting her taxes done provided some unexpected obstacles. During her phone appointment, Barbara had to cut the call short to take care of a time sensitive matter with her school. “I trust the team to take care of everything even though I’m not sitting there with them because they’re very capable and know what they’re doing.”

Thankfully she knew her VITA preparer from the previous years. “I had worked with Camille the year before and I had also spoken to her the year before that,” Barbara said. “If you ever meet Camille, she’s the nicest person ever.” Camille and the VITA team took care of everything. They understand that many of their clients, like Barbara, are juggling work, family, school, and more. “She was so gracious! It probably endeared me even more to VITA and to the United Way and the efforts that they do to help our community.” 

To make an appointment with United Way of Northern California’s VITA team, call 530.241.7521. All appointments are virtual this year, which means you don’t have to be in Redding, or even Shasta County, to take advantage of VITA. While the drop-off services are limited to folks who make  $66,000 or less annually, MyFreeTaxes.org, the online version, is available to anyone regardless of their income.


The Slater Fire: Rita's Story

March 30, 2021Rita Manley-King

"If it wasn't for Listos, we would've lost hundreds of lives that day," Rita Manley-King recounted in the weeks after the devastating Slater Fire hit the community of Happy Camp, California. "The evacuation has gone out. Everybody has got the text from 2-1-1. They know [the fire] is coming," Rita shared, "I ran downtown to check on friends and family and I had just seen a woman who I had known for years. She is in her bathrobe, her children are in their pajamas. She is looking at me...in shock and she's like 'we just lost everything we own. The entire ranch is gone.'" At that moment, the Listos Disaster Preparedness Training kicked in for someone across the street, she recalls.

Months earlier, United Way of Northern California's 2-1-1 Program Specialist, Jacqueline Nushi, was making her way through Siskiyou County communities with boxes of the Listos Disaster Preparedness Guide. "These people who took the training, they still carry around their disaster guides. I even had one lady say that this was her bible," Jacque shared. "You just see such a difference in people who...took that hour training.... They are so much more relaxed and at peace even though they lost everything."

In the moment it was needed most, disaster preparedness training became a rallying cry. Rita said, "That training gave a few people the edge to move the rest of the group on. You never know who's going to step up during a situation like that."

Your support of UWNC not only helps communities prepare for potential disasters, it helps families rebuild their homes, provides food & shelter to evacuees, and gives people hope when they need it most. Learn more about Rita's story and disaster preparedness at NorCalUnited.co/youtube.


Camp Fire Survivor Receives Housing & Hope

March 8, 2021Woman and dog

In early March, United Way of Northern California’s Disaster Response team received an inspiring story of success from a local case manager we had been working with:

After surviving the Camp Fire, my 73-year-old female client lived in a FEMA trailer for most of the following two years. She searched for a new home to rent that would allow her dog, hoping to stay in Butte County, but the search was difficult.

In January 2021, she finally found a place in Gridley that she financially qualified for. She applied for the two bedroom [apartment] that was available and found out that, as a Camp Fire survivor, she was considered priority!

Meanwhile, her FEMA worker was pushing for her to move out [of her trailer]. I spoke with the FEMA worker a couple of times a week to let her know that my client was doing everything she could. Unfortunately, there are not many local housing options for someone on Social Security. Her FEMA worker appreciated the updates and was able to push back the 15-day leave letter for quite awhile, but it was still coming. My client's new date to move out of her trailer was March 3rd, 2021.

On February 19th, my client received the amazing news that everything was approved for her to move into her new apartment...on March 1st! This didn’t give us much time to apply for the available funding to help with first months’ rent and deposit, so we started working on it right away. I received everything needed from the office manager to apply to United Way of Northern California's amazing S.H.O.P. program (Stable Housing Opportunities Program) by the following Tuesday, but an unexpected expense of $350 presented an additional problem. My client called crying, and stated that she didn't have the funds to cover it. This could ruin all the work we had done! I immediately contacted the utility company in Gridley and a fantastic woman named Sandra, was able to get me the bill and a W9 by Wednesday morning, allowing me to update the S.H.O.P. application to include the new expense. Then, we waited.

On the morning of February 26th, a Friday, I received an email that a check was waiting for me. (What a wonderful way to start a Friday!) I called my client and the office manager for her new apartment to share the exciting news. My client was overjoyed! She was terrified that she might have to live in her truck with her dog, and she prayed over and over that everything would work out, and it did.

My client and her dog are now living happily in their new home. She says she loves being close to town but not too close and she is appreciative of United Way of Northern California’s S.H.O.P. program, knowing that none of this could have happened if you weren't there. (And so quickly, too!) The checks came through only two days after applying. If that hadn’t happened, we don't know where my client would be. This has been one of many times that S.H.O.P. has saved the day!

Thank you so much for all you do at United Way for our survivors! They just need a step up and you have been there for so many of them. Thank you!

For more stories on our work with wildfire recovery, check out our YouTube channel at NorCalUnited.co/youtube.