‘It’s going to take a whole community:’ Petaluma’s Elece Hempel leads fire healing effort

When Elece Hempel sought to transition from the high-powered tech world into the nonprofit realm, she had to convince Petaluma People Services Center’s leadership she was right for the job.

After two months of working for free, she was hired by the nonprofit, and she hasn’t looked back since. With creative thinking and tenacity, she’s grown the organization, which serves as a key Petaluma resource with programs in high demand after October’s ferocious fires.

“When I think about how we reacted to the fires, everyone at this agency accepted responsibility,” said Hempel, the current executive director who has worked in various capacities at PPSC since 2004. “We were one of the few large nonprofits that wasn’t impacted by the fires and we needed to step up.”

PPSC provides services for seniors, housing programs, adult and youth employment and training programs as well as counseling and food assistance. As disaster struck, PPSC’s Petaluma Bounty Farm helped distribute produce and other goods local agrarians weren’t able to sell at farmer’s markets, Hempel said.

Case managers reached out to Petaluma seniors to prepare them in case the flames reached the city limits, and offer support during some of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history.

Shared Housing and Resource Exchange, or SHARE Sonoma County, a partner program with PPSC, was expanded to help house displaced fire victims as flames were still devouring more than 5,000 homes in the county. About 85 people are now living in long-term home shares, an effort powered by volunteers who stepped up to help, Hempel said.

Her organization is currently drafting a blueprint to serve residents whose lives were turned upside down by the fires, while also reaching its regular clients in Petaluma and beyond.

“We’ve already seen an increase and a growing need for trauma-informed counseling … for many clients, this is just one more thing to add to this sometimes awful life and we continue to try to find the silver lining,” the 57-year-old said. “We’re seeing a need for that and we’re in conversations to build programming for first responders.”

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