Outstanding Political Action: Redwood CU Shines Light in a Devastated Community
When a devastating fire destroyed a multitude of homes in the small northern California town of Middletown in September 2015, California State Senator Mike McGuire called upon Redwood Credit Union President/CEO Brett Martinez to assist the devastated community.
“I received a phone call from our state Senator on my cell phone around 10:30 that night and he said, ‘Words are that we’ve just lost Middletown and we need to do something,’” said the president/CEO of CU Times’ 2016 Trailblazer Award recipient for Outstanding Political Action.
It wasn't the first such fire – during the summer of 2015, the California landscape was ablaze with flames that spread due to a drought that has plagued the state for several years.
The Valley Fire, as Martinez referred to the one that swept through Middletown, was the last of three that started in the summer and ultimately burned through 170,000 acres in the Golden State. It caused a complete devastation of the community, burning more than 1,300 homes.
“It pretty much took that whole area,” Martinez, who also sits on the CUNA board as an at-large member and on its executive committee, said. “There isn't much left of it. It just trashed the whole community. We don't have any branches in Lake County, but we have members and some employees in the area who were impacted.”
Of the credit union's 500 employees, three lived in Middletown and were displaced as a result of the Valley Fire.
The day after he received Sen. McGuire's call, Martinez called on his senior leadership team to devise a plan.
Fundraising efforts for fire victims had already begun when Martinez and Redwood became so personally involved in the Middletown crisis. Working in conjunction with its local newspaper, the credit union's fund already totaled between $15,000 and $20,000, Martinez said.
Redwood put several programs and products into place to help fire victim members, including low-interest loans and emergency loans at zero interest, as well as loans for mobile homes and trailers, which many people placed on their properties to live in while their homes were rebuilt.
The credit union also began reaching out to the community and communicating with its members and other credit unions to alert them of efforts to raise money to help the Middletown fire victims.
As Middletown is one of the poorest communities in California and did not have the infrastructure, resources or ability to raise its own funds, Martinez said credit unions responded to a call to action to help the small, rural area.
“Our goal was about $50,000,” he said. “In a matter of 12 weeks, more than 12,000 donors contributed about $2.5 million to our fund. It blew us away. It was really a 360-degree, full-pronged approach, and it certainly caught us off guard to have our goal of $50,000 turn into $2.5 million.”
A partnership developed between Redwood, Sen. McGuire and their local newspaper, the Press Democrat.
“The interesting part about that group was that everybody had their core competency and their strengths,” Martinez said. “The Press Democrat was our way to message people and get the word out. The Senator had the local contacts, FEMA, emergency services and the elected officials, as well as the community in general. We had the infrastructure and ability to raise and gather the funds through our community fund and then worked on methods for distribution.”
Redwood tapped into two additional sources for funding: The National Credit Union Fund, which provided $54,500 directly to the credit union's employees and members who were impacted, and the Fire Family Foundation, which contributed $150,000.
The distribution of funds began in earnest as Martinez and Redwood staff worked with local officials to hand out gift cards to local students, teachers and school workers so they could buy school supplies and clothes. Redwood also worked with a local school's superintendent's office to determine who was in need.
Recipients were very grateful, according to Martinez, despite the look of numbness on their faces as he and others distributed the gift cards.
“The learning lesson here is, collecting that money sounds like a lot of work, but giving it away is significantly harder,” he said. “That's the surprising thing about this. There are all kinds of rules about giving the money away, and you have to be careful with fraud and accountability.”
Within the community, humans as well as animals were displaced.
“That county is a rural community, with lots of animals,” Martinez said. “We supported animal care and partnered with the Farm Bureau and provided funds to build new fences to keep large animals and livestock safe.”
Redwood also provided funds to first responders and firefighters, as well as the local sheriff's office and police who lost their homes while they were out fighting and protecting others from the fires.
“They knew their houses were burning, but stayed on the job and did what they had to do,” he said.
Redwood's efforts helped reopen a local daycare that had burned during the blaze. Before it re-opened, many parents had to pick up their children after school and take them back to work with them.
Martinez recalled how devastated the area looked post-fire when firefighters led him through a community of 56 homes.
“There were three homes left,” he said. “There was nothing left except a chimney now and then, and a skeleton of a bicycle and the skeleton of a car.”
Everything else was complete ash, he added. Victims had no time to gather their belongings when the fire hit, and one could see evidence of that in the ruins. There were but a few businesses in Middletown, and luckily, most escaped harm. Martinez and other fire victim supporters also held up in a coffee shop and bought coffee for people who returned to Middletown and found their homes had been turned to ashes.
“It has nothing to do with the fundraising; we were supporting the businesses,” he said. “We were trying to be present. We don't have any branches in that community. People asked us why we were there, to which we replied, ‘Because they needed our help.’”
Martinez presents checks to South Lake County Fire District Director Jim Comisky to help first responders who lost their homes while fighting fires.
All of the funds raised came from outside the county, according to Martinez. He recounted how kids held penny drives and people from all over the country sent in money, for example. A New York law firm even donated three separate checks, all anonymously, to support the efforts.
The credit union's mailroom was flooded with letters, and as he walked past the room on a daily basis, Martinez said staff members would often be found crying as they read letters of support for the Middletown victims.
Funds were also sent to the fire district to help replace equipment it lost in the fire.
“What happens after a big, massive fire like that, when El Nino follows it, there are going to be mudslides,” Martinez explained. “They didn't have any swift water rescue or mudslide equipment. We gave them a grant to purchase the equipment and receive the training to prepare for the floods that we knew were coming.”
The overall response in the community was overwhelming – one day while in a café with two female victims, a sound caught Martinez's attention. From down the street rumbled two trucks carrying trailers loaded down with new bicycles for the children of Middletown.
“There were probably 100 bicycles,” he said. “The two ladies were bawling, hugging each other and hugging me. Some group went out and bought all these bicycles and were delivering them right down the middle of town.”
While the nightmare resulting from the fire has not yet ended, there is hope for the victims in Middletown, as checks from the $2.5 million raised will be distributed in the coming weeks. And, around $500,000 will remain in the fund; community leaders are still debating how to spend it.
One option is to use it to help local businesses struggling due to displaced community members. Martinez said he is concerned about the economic sustainability of businesses that are still open yet struggling.
As residents continue to rebuild their homes and businesses, Martinez still reflects on the first day he stepped foot into the ash-laden town.
“Our mission is to passionately serve the best interests of our members, employees and communities,” he said. “I think that day, we did that.”