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Unless one saw it herself, it would be hard to believe that in a mass of people grieving, there was a mass of people giving thanks.
Roughly 400 members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District community gathered Nov. 20 in Santa Monica High School’s cafeteria for a Friendsgiving, offering food and fellowship to those impacted by the Woolsey Fire.
“To my knowledge, there are 33 families with children at Juan Cabrillo and 26 at Point Dume schools who have lost their homes,” said Pam Herkner, principal of both schools. “We also have eight staff who have lost their homes, and that is only counting the families that have suffered a total loss.”
Herkner, with the help of staff from both schools, immediately mobilized efforts to help.
“You know the old saying about never doubting what a small group of people can do if they believe?” she said. “Well, it’s true here and it’s amazing when people give from the heart and come out and act from kindness and compassion.”
A sense of normalcy filled the cafeteria as children darted about, little ones being little ones and teenagers being teenagers.
Stefanie Colvig, a parent and a paraeducator at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, bustled about with large trays of food, joyfully surveying the dishes. Colvig served as the event’s main chef and was the driving force behind rallying volunteers as they provided the expansive feast of ham and turkey, mashed potatoes and dressing, gravy and vegetables, desserts and more.
“I got sick of sitting at home and I wanted to be able to put a smile on people’s faces,” she said. “I love to cook so this group effort came together.”
Over the feast, attendees shared stories — stories of heroism, and of close calls.
“We will work with all of you to rebuild from this tragedy,” said Ben Drati, SMMUSD superintendent. “I worked in Santa Barbara before working for SMMUSD and that community took the same steps we are taking here tonight; people came together organically, sharing fellowship and food, and they provided one another with overwhelming support.”
There were tables of books, linens and clothing. Victims, some still visibly jarred by having lost all their earthly belongings, hugged old friends as they gathered needed items.
Sarah Rockne founded Project Woolsey, an effort by Claremont citizens to provide children with toys contributed by children.
“I have three children and we wanted to organize doing something special,” Rockne said. “We want to have children provide children affected by the fire with a moment, just a moment, of joy and of forgetting the trauma of the wildfire and we are providing care bags from one child to another so the children who receive them will know that a stranger cares and that we all do.”
Kasey Earnest, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Malibu, announced that the organization has established the Malibu Emergency Relief Fund in partnership with the Malibu Foundation. Details can be found at bgcmalibu.org.
“Better days are coming,” Drati told attendees. “Please know that your teachers, administrators and staff are working hard to get you back to school and we will make sure your return is safe.”
Many attendees commented that Malibu is lucky — yes, lucky. Malibu is lucky because so many gathered for a repast, a respite, and a normal moment before continuing on with efforts to recover, rebuild and reset.
“I think it is wonderful to get us all together,” said Erin Bryan, the mother of two children who attend Webster. “Getting the families together and allowing the children to see their friends and, very importantly, to see their teachers, is very helpful.”
Regardless of one’s age, it is hard to grasp the enormity of the loss, the sea change that this small seaside town has endured.
Nonetheless, an amazing positivism permeated the cafeteria. That positivity spilled out onto the outdoor patio where John Siegel, son of Julie Siegel, vice principal of Juan Cabrillo, set up his Malibu-based band, The Deltaz, who performed Americana tunes.
“We lost our house, but all the people and the animals are fine, even our horses who had eaten all the growth near the barn, and we came home to find them standing totally surrounded by charred devastation on all sides and we’re thankful that Skydog Sanctuary rescued them for us,” Siegel said.
Plus, he added, “We still have music.”
And that’s not all Malibu still has. At SMMUSD’s Friendsgiving, Malibu’s blessings were everywhere one looked.