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Universalist Church collects 600 coats for fire victims

Posted: January 9, 2009 8:32 p.m.
Updated: January 10, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Cary Van Ausdall (far left), Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer, accepted a $1,000 donation from the Pacific Southwest District of Unitarian Universalist churches by Eve Bushman, a representative, Gerri Brehm, congregation president and Rev. Ricky Hoyt, at the final day of a 600-coat drive for the victims of the Sylmar Sayre Fire.

On Nov. 16, after local Unitarian Universalist's services, many church members were "called" to duty. They set a goal of collecting 600 new or gently used coats for the 600 homes and businesses lost to a devastating fire in Sylmar the day before.

Within a week they had more than 200. Within three weeks they reached their goal. At press time, they received almost 1,000 coats, jackets, sweatshirts and sweaters.

The Pacific Southwest District of UU congregations in California, Arizona and Nevada showed their support with a check for $1,000. Red Cross sent Disaster Services volunteer Cary Van Ausdall to services on Sunday, the final day of the drive, to accept the donation.

Ausdall thanked the church for its generous donation of Disaster Relief Support funds for the Southern California Wildland Fires Operations.

"We greatly appreciate all the local UU's organizations that participated in both the fundraiser and the coat drive via our parternship with Goodwill Industries," Ausdall said. The Sayre Fire in Sylmar was the worst fire in Los Angeles history since the Bel Air fires in 1961, he said.

With the drive ending on Jan. 4, local church members had enlisted help from their friends. The original group of church volunteers included Betsy and Roger Donley, Eve Bushman, Trish Lester, Renee Toensing and Barbara Cogswell. "Unitarian Universalists emphasize both words and deeds," Betsy Donley said. "We profess love made visible by service to our fellow humans. It simply is what we're called to do as Unitarians. With cold weather approaching, it made sense to target outerwear.

"Imagine losing everything to fire and not having one warm coat left to face the mid-30 temperatures that followed the disaster. Dozens of Santa Claritans, Californians and concerned citizens across the United States answered our call for coats - many new with tags still on them."

Roger and Betsy were given the most thanks for contacting the Red Cross and Goodwill Industries. They then picked up, counted and delivered the warm outerwear every week to the Goodwill - the Sayre Fire victims only had to bring in their free Red Cross vouchers to get a coat.

By the time the Donleys' first e-mail reached out to the rest of their congregation, followed by the local and national UU branches publicizing the drive, the story in The Signal and forwarded e-mails, the victims had a few more Angels to thank.

The SCV church president, Gerri Brehm, collected more than 125 coats and jackets from Live Oak Elementary school in Castaic. This is the time of year for schools to donate their lost and found clothing.

Local friends at the Hunger Defense Fund donated more than 100 coats while the Mes Amies women's chapter of the Betty Ferguson Foundation matched it. Signal readers and patrons of J Sister's salon began a steady stream of visits to the church, located at the Senior Center, on Sundays. Helen La Prairie, SCV realtor, and her husband Guy LeLarge, owner of Valencia Wine Company filled a car trunk with coats. Lil Lepore, of Vino 100, filled it another day.

The Donleys, moving to the Santa Clarita Valley only six months before, received a huge UPS box from their friends back home in Indiana. And another box came from their relatives in Washington, which means coats were coming in from as far as 2,140 miles away.

Sue Hallet, representing the Sherman Oaks based group, We Change LA, collected and delivered over 40 coats on the last day of the drive when she heard of the need from UU church member Renee Foley.
The UU church of Santa Monica, collected by member Beverly Allison, and delivered by member Cathie Gentile, garnered more than 110 coats. Barb Ketay, from the UU Church of the Desert, in Rancho Mirage had collected more than 20.

A mother/daughter book club run by Rebecca Patel in Northridge also forwarded the original e-mail request and collected coats of their own and from others. Another trunk-stuffed drive home from Northridge brought in another 100 coats.

The biggest surprises were the new coats that were purchased just to donate to the drive. One church member searched until he found a coat that filled the specifics needed: orange reflective fabric, water resistant, hooded and fully lined.

It was nice for the volunteers to see bags of coats coming in for these past few weeks. They will miss that.

But they may not have to ...

For items received after the donations cut-off date, the Unitarian Universalists will take them to our locally run Assistance League Take Two thrift shop in Newhall. The Assistance League will gratefully accept warm outerwear as there is a great need here in the Santa Clarita Valley, too, especially for men's clothing.

People are cold everywhere. Be an angel and try and warm some more.

Unitarian Universalists draw upon the teachings of many of the world's faiths to help individuals build their own theology. The church's Web site is; the phone number is (661) 254-7866.

Eve Bushman is with Unitarian Universalists of SCV.


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