As fires raged across California, hundreds of thousands of people in the North Bay were impacted. Mandatory evacuations were widespread in Sonoma County, and an unprecedented number of homes were without electricity. On October 28, the Marin Center was transformed into a shelter, hospital, and animal rescue center for the evacuees from the Kincaid Fire to the north.
The first night, 700 men, women and children were housed on cots in the Exhibit Hall. The Red Cross was on the scene with hundreds of volunteers. Everyone was able to eat, sleep, shower and stay plugged in to the news. Their physical needs were being met. Yet, their hearts were heavy and they struggled with how to spend the long hours of waiting. Organizations stepped up to bring books and art projects for the children to keep them occupied. The adults were given newspapers and decks of cards.
A poem by James Oppenheim about a women’s labor strike in Massachusetts in 1912 reads:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread; but give us roses!
People need the basics of “bread” but also the beauty of “roses.” These words inspired our founder the late Mimi Fariña to put the poem to music and to start Bread & Roses the nonprofit organization that now brings over 600 shows a year to those in need of the joy and healing of live music. Bread & Roses Presents heard the call to bring some “roses” to the shelter and responded by quickly scheduling performers to bring their uplifting songs to the evacuees over several days.
With guitar in hand, Kurt Huget brought his wide repertoire of music from the 50s through the 90s to cheer up the folks sitting around tables and lying on their cots. He did songs by the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Richie Valle and more. He was able to speak and play several numbers in Spanish, which thrilled the many Latinos listening. When he started his first song I Can See Clearly Now, a woman approached in tears. She said, "It was my favorite as a child and brought back so many happy memories.” She was grateful that her home in Sebastopol and her family were safe, but she was anxious to get back as soon as the mandatory evacuation was lifted. For the moment it was evident the music had calmed and lifted her out of her dark mood.
Lauren Arrow with her dad Michael Arrow joked as they figured out which songs they would play. This was their first time performing together, although both of them have their own professional bands. The magic of her strong voice and his percussion playing got people up to dance and sing along. Luis, an evacuee, and his two-year-old son began spinning around to the music. At one point he had to put his son down, but he came back up to dance on his own. Lauren sang a beautiful song Concordancia by the Peruvian rock band El Polen that touched even those who didn’t understand the lyrics.
Cormac Gannon, who is from Ireland originally, plays traditional and popular songs from the Emerald Isle. With guitar, bodhran frame drum and uilleann pipes, he brought the sweet sounds of his homeland into the large room. Many curious listeners came up to see what these unusual instruments were, and he was happy to demonstrate how they were played. Conversations ensued about who had Irish ancestry and which of the songs grandparents or parents had sung.
The largely volunteer staff as well as the evacuees found joy in the moment. Many people expressed how much the music meant to them:
"I was feeling restless and sad. You really made my day."
"It’s so nice to have some distraction!"
"This music makes me smile."
"Thank you so much for taking the time to come down here and play for us. It really makes a difference."
Stephanie Greenberg brought her 14-year-old daughter and their karaoke machine to have a little fun with the crowds who were diminishing by the second day. Most of the people from Santa Rosa were now going home. They were sent on their way with a song in their hearts. A woman said her baby woke up crying, but when she heard the music she quieted down and was mesmerized by the voices.
Bread & Roses Board Member Matt Jaffe was also poised to play at the shelter, but by October 31 the temporary evacuation in most of Sonoma County had been lifted. Happily, the center was emptied, with everyone was on their way home.
Director of the Department of Cultural Services Gabriella Calicchio wrote, “Thank you so much for your partnership. I know the evacuees and the folks working the shelter really appreciated the music.” Marketing and Communications Director Libby Garrison, said, “We heard from some of the state folks who had visited many of the shelters in Sonoma County that ours was so much better because of the music and that the evacuees looked happy. It made such an important impact and difference here, and we really appreciate what you offer.”
The volunteers at Bread & Roses Presents understand what music can do for the heart. There are times when it is the best medicine you can have. As we continue to bring the healing power and compassionate touch of live performance throughout the Bay Area, we are grateful to the many donors who support our organization and allow us to share this gift with our neighbors in need.
Photos and videos by Carolyn Gauthier.
1) Kurt Huget poses with Rhonda, a volunteer shelter worker with the American Red Cross.
2) Kurt Huget sings "I Can See Clearly Now."
3) Lauren Arrow with her dad Michael Arrow perform "Concordancia" a song by the Peruvian band "El Polen."
4) Cormac Gannon sings an Irish ballad.
5) Stephanie Greenberg sings "Ooh Child (Things Are Gonna Get Easier)."
6) Stephanie Greenberg leads Karaoke.
7) Lauren Arrow and Michael Arrow play percussion and guitar.