Bringing Christmas cheer to Santa Rosa's Coffey Park

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Coffey Park, blackened by fire, is beginning to glow brightly. 

Some volunteers and victims are turning the charred Santa Rosa neighborhood into a holiday display. 

Monday night, a dozen volunteers were busy hanging light strands along Hopper Avenue and decorating donated Christmas trees on Rita Place. 

"It's kind of cool-looking although at first, I was skeptical because nobody lives here," said neighborhood resident Gary Barsuglia, "but now for those who lost homes, they can feel like it's our neighborhood and we are coming back." 

Barsuglia shot dramatic cell phone video the night of the Oct. 8 firestorm. 

His ex-wife, son, and daughter lost their home on Rita Place. 

He stopped by when he saw the activity and lent some tools from his truck to build tree stands. 

"You can burn a community down to the ground, but you can't take their Christmas spirit," said project organizer Ronnie Duvall, as he moved up and down ladders, changing batteries and setting timers for the dozens of light strands on any surface left standing. 

Duvall says he is between jobs as a construction manager, so had time to be a Red Cross volunteer the past two months, and now has shifted his efforts to Coffey Park.

"I'm hoping we get a Santa and sleigh and reindeer out here, to transport children and families up and down the street," he said optimistically. 

Duvall started with just a few light strands last week, a "Secret Santa" endeavor of his own, he said, but the idea caught on.   

He says the most rewarding part is when fire families hear about it, and drive through the once-bleak moonscape, stopping to thank him. 

"It's emotional. They stop and get out and give me a hug. They cry. That makes me cry," said Duvall. 

Monday evening, Duvall chatted with Rita Place survivor Nicole Medeiros, who lost her home of 17 years. 

"We won't have our own tree this year because we're not in our own place, " said Medeiros, as she decorated a Christmas tree plopped in the back of a charred pick-up truck. 

"We're in a motel for the holidays. Our apartment isn't ready until the end of December, so it's just gives me a little bit of the holidays that I wouldn't be able to do on my own" said Medeiros. 

Many of the volunteers adding bringing their own ornaments and energy to the project, are coming from outside the neighborhood. 

"They need to know that people care, and there's still love," said Angel Anderson of Petaluma, as she hung garland on a tree. "You just have to help your community and help people going through a hard time." 

A couple from Mark West Springs, another area ravaged by fire, said they hope the idea spreads to other fire zones. 

"It's so desolate, and then you see a little sparkle and it's the sparkle of hope," said Jen Arrington, who admitted she suffers from survivors guilt, since her home still stands. 
"I drive my son to school through 6 miles of burn, and it does not matter which direction I go, which shortcut I take, it's all burned, everywhere," said Arrington. 

"We were lucky we came out okay, but a lot of people didn't," said partner Matt Esenberg, "so how can we not help, show them there's hope, there's light at the end of the tunnel."

Duvall is dreaming of four festive cul-de-sacs along Hopper, each with a different theme, and carolers, candy, and gifts for the kids. 

He'd like to have it all ready to go by the coming weekend, but he needs help: more trees, more lights, more hands. 

Efforts are being organized on the Facebook page: Bring Christmas to Coffey Park. 

No matter how big, or bright, an area he manages to illuminate, he says the project will have been worthwhile. 

"It shows them that the Christmas spirit is stronger than the fire that burned this place. And we as a community will survive, no matter what," said Duvall.