'Love wins:' fundraiser held for Russian River flood victims as community gears up for pride

Several days of fundraising have kicked off to help Russian River flood victims. Billed as "Love Wins", the campaign launched Thursday night with a buffet, silent auction, and boisterous raffle at Guerneville's iconic gay bar, Rainbow Cattle Company. 

Many of those working on the fundraiser are also active in Sonoma Gay Pride and Russian River Pride, coming up in a few months.

"The sun is out and we're happy", said organizer Rodger Jensen, " but there are so many people who are stressed and need help." Other events include Friday evening's #BetterTogether reception, with auction and wine tasting at Big Bottom Market in Guerneville.   

Saturday evening, a Flood Aid Extravaganza at the Guerneville Veterans Hall will have comic Bruce Vilanch as host, with live music, comedy and a drag show. 

"About forty grand, that's our goal. And we're already halfway there in one night," Jensen told KTVU, as people poured into the Rainbow Cattle kick-off. 

Jensen already has matching pledges from the bar owners and Sonoma Pride. The money raised will stay on the river, funneled through a local social service agency to individuals, families and businesses struggling seven weeks after the devastating flood.

"Vouchers, straight out the door," explained Jensen, "and if I have to sit there and personally sign the vouchers, I will do it because I know where it needs to go."

Steps away from the fundraiser, health providers at West County Health Centers acknowledged there is a persistent need in the community.  

"As with most disasters, the people hurt the worst are the ones who already had the least, " said Dr. Jared Garrison- Jakel. "We didn't get the funds that a lot of disasters get so the fundraising is definitely needed to help connect folks with the care they need." 

Dr. Garrison-Jakel was examining a patient whose preexisting respiratory problems have been aggravated by the flood. 

"I try not to breathe, try not to get too excited," Heidi Rielli of Forestville, told KTVU. "When the river went down it's all sooty and the smells left from the moisture don't go away, so I've been to the hospital three times since, just to get relief." 

The agency has a year-round hardship fund for patients, which has been stretched even further by the flood.And clinic property in Guerneville was invaded by flood water, a financial hit for a non-profit that serves some 15,000 patients a year, 4,000 of them in Guerneville. 

"A lot of people are still hurting, but we've been through this before," said patient Blythe Omick, "and when you're here in the summertime and the river seems like a trickle, it doesn't seem like it could ever come up this far." 

Some business owners who are supporting the "Love Wins” fundraiser say it's the least they can do, when the generousity of others helped them reopen. 

"We had a GoFundMe that raised more than $10,000 in seven days to rebuild the shop," said Berlin Fisher, owner of the West Sonoma Style Bar, a hair salon in the flood zone.

"So what was cool bout that was I decided to give $4,000 away in grants to other community members who needed it more." 

For some river dwellers, the area is home, and for others, a weekend getaway.

"The LGBTQ community is huge up here, a huge force," said fundraiser Jensen, noting everyone unites to help each other, making it less a gay community, than an inclusive one.  

"In west Sonoma County and the Russian River, we don't label ourselves, we come together as one and that's the beauty of this community."  

Contributions to the hardship fund at West County Health Centers can be made at www.wchealth.org.