October 9 is the anniversary of the devastating fires that swept through Santa Rosa in 2017. Residents from both Spring Lake Village and Jennings Court were evacuated and twelve of Covia’s staff lost their home in the fires.
Here are a few of the stories from our residents and staff. If you have a memory you wish to share, please email it to Laura Darling at email@example.com.
Fred Jennings Court resident
I was almost caught in the fire itself. I was housesitting up on the very top of Fountain Grove and taking care of a little dog who was recovering from a broken back surgery. And banging on the door, I ran to the front door, it was 1:00 in the morning, a man was yelling, “We have to leave! We have to leave! Everything is on fire!” I could see the blazes coming up across the street. So the dog and I and everything left there within 12 minutes. Toby is the dog’s name, was so cool, he let me glide him in and glide him out and out we went. And then it was very slow because of all of the traffic coming all the way down. I got home here, and the very next day all our electricity went out. So I carried Toby up and down the stairs for that time when it was out. And here the dog was healing from back injury. Well, his owner has been so kind to me! And I think he would have if we got to know each other, but this was the first time I house sat for him. He always introduces me, “This is Fred who saved Toby.”
Patricia Burke Skilled Nursing Housekeeping, Spring Lake Village
The morning of the fires was chaotic. Our neighbor came and knocked on doors and said we had to get out because the fire was coming. We grabbed the dog and put him in the neighbor’s car and drove off. We didn’t grab anything else because we didn’t ever think we’d lose everything.
We drove away and tried to notify other neighbors by banging on their doors and trying to help with evacuations. Everything was burned the next day when we went back home. I called my supervisor and let her know my house was gone and I wouldn’t be reporting to work. She assured me my job was secure and told me to take my time coming back into work. I was paid for the time I was off, that helped immensely.
After only a few days off, I returned to work, mostly because I needed something to keep my mind off the loss. The entire staff and residents were very compassionate and gave continued hugs (they still do when they see me). There were donations from all areas – LeadingAge California, LeadingAge National, Covia, credit unions, residents, architects, local communities and even co-workers all donated to us. The compassion from executive staff was strong and the ongoing continued support has been paramount to my emotional healing. You don’t ever really get over such devastation, and having co-workers and residents still ask how I’m doing feels really good.
Covia has done a great job of supporting continued communications with co-workers, who were also greatly affected by the fires and we’ve created an internal support group to help each other through the rough times.
We were offered outside counseling and it was important to know, even though I relied on friends and family for support, that the option was available to me.
Renee Hayward Spring Lake Village, Director of Social Services
I remember waking up in the night and running from the fire. The first thing I grabbed was my work clothes because I knew I had to go to work on Monday.
We left and later learned our home and entire neighborhood burned to the ground. When I went back to work on Tuesday, I didn’t know the extent of the fire and didn’t realize until I showed up to Spring Lake Village that we were going to have to evacuate due to smoke damage. As a social worker, I had experience working in these sensitive situations and knew I had to find permanent places, call families, and mostly ensure the sound emotional and medical states of our residents. I was operating in survival mode at that point and just keeping my mind off my own devastation and loss the day prior.
Two days after the fires, we all went to Casa Grande gym to support our memory and skilled nursing residents. Our residents did really well and one said to me, “I used to work at Red Cross and set up for war…this is nothing compared to that.” I called families and helped residents get placed and transferred to other communities as soon as possible. There were 11 of us who lost our homes here and just talking with other staff was very valuable.
Once I knew all the residents were evacuated and settled, I finally took some time off to provide the emotional support to my family. Just driving was tough after the fires as my husband and I were in a fog. During the whole event, I really learned that everyone rallies the few months of the emergency and it was very valuable to have that ongoing support. The hardest part of the whole ordeal is that people who haven’t gone through that kind of total loss don’t understand the timeline. First you battle with insurance and then you are just in basic survival mode. Anything out of the normal, even a simple flat tire, is devastating. You look for things you ”had” and people don’t understand that feeling. Your body is in transition and you feel like you’re on vacation. In addition, you forget your things are gone. The entire situation was tough but it helped me better understand what residents are going through. I now have a greater level of personal empathy for their situations.
I would offer communities that should your staff go through a crisis, don’t be afraid to ask, “how’s it going?” It’s okay to say “I’m sorry” and it’s important to have a staff and a resident meeting that provides updates on all individuals involved. Covia was great at respecting our right to privacy and letting us “tell our story” as we were comfortable.
[Originally printed in LeadingAge California’s Engage Magazine]
Madeleine Jennings Court resident
During the fire, it was terrifying. I don’t know any other way to describe it. We were without power, I think maybe it was only 24 hours, it might have been a little longer. Someone came over to check on me and took me and another friend to her house to recharge our phones because we were without power to recharge phones.
Just knowing that so many people were impacted – and still are. It’s a beautiful community, though, for the fact that those of us who live here are low income and we gave. It wasn’t, “Well, we don’t have enough to give.” When it’s in a situation when you know others need something, everyone pulled together. I would say, “This person’s daughter lost everything and her husband’s a musician.” I had friends give me a banjo, I had guitar music given to me. Just those kind of things mean so much, and I was amazed myself at the things I was willing to part with in order to assist others. So that’s the beauty of it, and it’s something that will live with us for a long, long time.
As Jennings Court, a Covia Affordable Community in Santa Rosa, celebrates its 10th anniversary this summer, its first residents are reflecting on their initial impressions.
“I was one of the first 8 people to move in,” says Fred Campbell. “And the day I walked into the facility, I fell in love with the structure, the ambiance.” Campbell, who had lost his business as a hairdresser in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, had been cleaning houses in Southern California when he learned that Jennings Court was being built. “I always thought [low income housing] was bad stuff because that’s how the movies always show it,” he said. Instead, “On a scale of 1-10, I’d say my first impression was an 11.”
“It was a rural setting then,” when Jennings Court opened in 2008, says Penni Colley. “Across the street were horses grazing around a barn. Of course, that’s not there any more, but it was so beautiful.”
Colley had been surprised there was still room in the new building when she received a letter saying there was an apartment available for her. “At my age and being low income, I didn’t think I would ever have a new apartment. You just kind of have to forget that because the chances of me having a brand new apartment were slim. When I saw how beautiful these were, I just couldn’t get over it.”
Colley explains that the apartments hadn’t filled due to the strict qualification requirements. Residents must be 62 or older and “very, very, very – three veries – low income,” she says.
“They were offering me such a sweet deal on the rent that I figured it would be a dump. And I was very pleasantly surprised to find how nice it is,” says Roger Hanelt, who had been homeless before moving into Jennings Court. “It’s been a very healing environment for me. Because I’ve gone through highs and lows and this place was definitely a rescue.”
Campbell remembers, “The day we got in, I stayed most of the time looking at the courtyard, so beautiful. Now I watch the seasons change with all of these trees outside my front door.”
Jennings Court has 54 apartments that look out on a central courtyard that contains a garden tended by the residents and a fountain donated by Spring Lake Village, another Covia community in Santa Rosa. It was built through a partnership between Covia and Burbank Housing with funding from HUD and the city of Santa Rosa. Along with housing, Jennings Court provides service coordination and programs such as a weekly Market Day and monthly visit from the Bookmobile.
Colley remembers “When we had our very first welcome party out in the patio out there, I just ran around to anyone who looked like they were a suit and said, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’
Before she moved in, “I remember thinking, ‘oh, well, I’ll have to let that thought go. I’m never going to have my own new place. And then God blessed me with this. And I just have a wonderful new apartment. Everything in it was new. It smelled new. There were no residual crumbs in the drawers that anybody had missed. So. Gratitude.”
“I kept telling myself how fortunate I was. I’m still poor as a church mouse but I’m not unhappy,” says Campbell. “Every time I think about Jennings Court when I’m away from it, it’s home.”
It’s easy to see the communities that Covia creates through its housing. What’s less known is the community created through its services. Covia provides Resident Service Coordination to 21 senior affordable housing communities throughout California, a service that’s largely invisible despite its impact on people’s lives.
Service coordination is about connecting residents with the public benefits, services and programs that can improve their lives and makes it more likely they will be able to stay longer in their homes.
“A lot of seniors have a lack of resources so we bring them community resources. We play the role of a bridge, connecting our seniors to local community resources,” says Bonnie Chang, Resident Services Coordinator for Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto. These can range from help with insurance or other paperwork to finding a way to pay for an electric scooter to registering residents with a local PACE [Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly], and much more.
Service Coordinators are also on-site resident advocates, says Ericka Battaglia, Lead Resident Services Coordinator at Good Shepherd Homes in Inglewood. “When I say advocate, I mean we support them through whatever they’re going through whether it’s physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. If we see a resident is not doing well, we provide resources for them so that they’re able to get better and age in place successfully.”
Katherine Smith, Senior Director of Social Services, explains that one of the most important things RSCs do is provide wellness education programs on site. Giving residents information on managing chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or providing fall prevention programs makes it more likely that residents will be able to live at home as long as possible, and prevent the need for invasive and costly medical interventions.
Service Coordinators come from a range of backgrounds, though many have degrees in gerontology and social work; most have Masters Degrees. Most of the Covia RSCs are bilingual or trilingual; among them, they can offer services in Korean, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and ASL and help to bridge the gap between cultural and language barriers.
The advanced degrees in social work also help Service Coordinators speak the same language as community service providers, says Battaglia. “If you’re finding a resource for behavioral health, the process moves a lot swifter if you speak the same professional language.”
Battaglia explains that she works as a liaison between building managers and residents. While the property manager’s job is to maintain the facility and fulfill HUD guidelines, the RSC’s job is to see that the resident is doing well. “For instance,” she says, “my property manager will come to me and say, ‘We have a resident that is not going to pass this inspection because they’re hoarding.’ “Instead of just going to residents with paperwork, notices and warnings, I can go and say, ‘Let’s figure this out together.’” It’s a win-win situation.
Residents win when they receive the services they need. Mary Avina, Resident Service Coordinator at Jennings Court in Santa Rosa, tells the story of a resident who needed significant dental work but couldn’t afford it. “He also desperately needed other medical procedures, but due to the infection in his mouth, he wasn’t able to get the other medical procedures done,” Avina explains. “So I assisted him in find the resources to be able to finance his most needed dental work to be done, and he was able to get that done and then able to get the medical procedure that he desperately needed. He’s very happy now and doing a lot better.”
“A lot of these seniors are – you know, they’re new to aging,” says Battaglia. “We’re trained to make sure their living experience isn’t another hassle for them, isn’t another barrier they have to overcome. We chose this because this is what we love to do, and this is the population that we want to serve.”
Artist Madeline Behrens-Brigham’s solo show A New Nest, a New Chapter is currently on display at Finley Senior Center in Santa Rosa. After 30 years as an artist and activist in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, Behrens-Brigham has found a new home at Jennings Court, a Covia Affordable Housing community.
Behrens-Brigham helped to shape the Hayes Valley neighborhood of shops and restaurants that we know today. She opened her mid-century furniture and art store, Modernology, on Hayes Street in 1990, shortly after the Loma Prieta earthquake which damaged the freeway running through that part of town. She was part of the committee that went to CalTrans to lobby for the freeway running to be torn down – a change that led to the revitalization of the entire neighborhood.
“At one point I had keys to all the stores,” says Behrens-Brigham. “If the owner would get sick, they’d call and ask me to open the stores.”
Behrens-Brigham also organized block parties, co-founded the Hayes Valley Art Coalition, and also served as a community board member of Legal Assistance for the Elderly, as a result of her own painful experience.
“For ten years I was pressured to leave my apartment in San Francisco, the landlords doing everything to get me out of the place,” Behrens-Brigham explains. “I was in a rent controlled apartment, but I’d come home and the manager of the building would invite the sheriff over. My landlord was a church, and for all the words on their letter head, they didn’t seem to care about me.”
With an annual income of $11,000, Behrens-Brigham found herself priced out of even many low-income apartments. She signed up for waiting lists and waited. She got to number 26 on the list for housing in San Francisco. When she asked how long it would be before she got to the top of the list, they told her it would be 11 years.
When the call came from Jennings Court, she and a friend drove up so she could see it for the first time. Though she hadn’t wanted to leave San Francisco, she knew this was her opportunity and took the apartment.
“When she first came here she had dyed blue hair and people were taken aback by that,” says Housing Administrator Sadie Bracy. “It was the talk of the town.”
“Now I have bright pink hair,” Behrens-Brigham notes. “It’s not so much that I wanted bright hair, but [the stylist] needed to teach others in the salon.”
“She’s constantly going places, inviting residents to do things, trying to draw people out and make friends,” says Bracy. “I’m always encouraged to see people move here and continue to have a good life.”
Behrens-Brigham currently serves as the Jennings Court Resident Council president. “My friends in San Francisco, knowing how involved I was politically, are laughing saying, of course we knew you’d become president.”
Getting a one-woman show “was a little bit serendipitous. I didn’t put my name forward. I didn’t believe I would qualify.” Though she offered to share the show with others, Finley Senior Center encouraged her to do a solo show.
Her art show illustrates through mixed media the new life she is building in Santa Rosa. “I went through a period of grieving to have left after 30 years. But now, I can honestly say, things are changing so much in San Francisco it’s not my town any more. The coffee shop is now a caviar bar.
“I’m making a new nest here and new chapter. I truly have done quite a few things in my life that other people consider unusual. I was a personal chef. I’ve done a number of interesting things. Some people have said, ‘When are you going to write a book?’ Well, I can’t write a book; I’m still writing new chapters.”
A New Nest, A New Chapter is on exhibit through February 22, 2018 at Finley Senior Center, located at 2060 W College Avenue in Santa Rosa.