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UpValley Family Centers reflect on the fires at Celebration of Life festival

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Ballet Folklorico at Celebration of Life

Swirling dancers and exquisite costumes were the highlight at the Celebration of Life festival held at the St. Helena Catholic School last Sunday.

The UpValley Family Centers and Nimbus Arts held a Celebration of Life festival last Sunday at the St. Helena Catholic Church, sponsored by a number of local people, companies and organizations. The free festival, which celebrated the resilience of the Latino communities, created a spirited atmosphere of fun, dance, song and artistry for the Latino children of the valley.

Sponsored by Alan and Sarah Galbraith, First American Title Company, Jones Family Vineyards – Elaine and Rick Jones, Napa Valley Wealth Management, PG&E, Wells Fargo Bank, and Westamerica Bank, the festival featured the Ballet Folklorico “El Valle” of St. Helena and a number of Nimbus Arts craft projects, as well as food and information for the Latino community.

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Cookie decorating at the Celebration of Life

Children were enthusiastically decorating sugar cookies during a Nimbus Arts workshop during the UpValley Family Centers' "Celebration of Life."

The occasion for the festival was created when the Día de los Muertos Celebration of 2017 – which had been scheduled for Oct. 29 — was canceled due to the Northern California fires that began burning on Oct. 8. During that fire the town of Calistoga was placed under mandatory evacuation on Oct. 11. Communities and families up and down the Napa Valley were severely impacted by the fires’ catastrophic devastation.

The resulting hardships visited hardships upon the Latino community – and which continue to impact many of those families today – created an inspiration for the UpValley Family Centers and Nimbus Arts to sponsor a festival celebrating the values of family and community.

Indira Lopez, program director for the UpValley Family Centers, said that the the Latino communities in the valley were especially hard hit by the fires. The UpValley Family Centers responded with numerous services to assist during the catastrophe.

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Folk dances at the Celebration of Life festival in St. Helena

Young members of Ballet Folklorico "El Valle" of St. Helena dance.

“In Calistoga, the entire town was evacuated for an entire week,” she said, sitting at a table during the festival. “Many people who didn’t have safe places to go ended up finding shelter at the Napa Valley College and at Crossroads Community Church in Napa.”

“Some employers were very generous to continue paying wages during the fires, but many smaller businesses couldn’t afford that generosity,” she added. “The families of vineyard workers and restaurant workers in particular struggled as a result of the downturn in business in the valley.”

But the temporary loss of housing and loss of wages were only the beginning of the challenges faced by many. “Additionally, after families returned to their homes, there were resulting expenses. Things like the lack of electricity which caused food in refrigerators to spoil. Families returned to find the refrigerators themselves unusable.”

The UpValley Family Centers were in the middle of the multiple crises offering assistance, Lopez said. Using money donated through the Napa Valley Community Foundation the centers were able to “immediately” respond to the needs of the communities. The centers also collaborated with the Salvation Army, Napa Valley Food Bank and the American Red Cross to provide food boxes and or hot meals to over 400 families impacted by the fires.

The centers also coordinated with the Red Cross to find space for mobile kitchens offering hot lunches and dinners for families in need. Just as important, low-income households living paycheck to paycheck needed food assistance immediately.

The organization then distributed gift cards to families to replace things that were lost as a result of the fires and the evacuation; things such as refrigerators ruined by spoiled food that had been unrefrigerated.

For employees whose employers could not afford to pay wages during the fire and the weeks following the events, the centers offered a path by which employees could obtain funds to make ends meet for critical expenses such as rent. Some of these families are still receiving funds, three months after the catastrophe.

But for the children and the families that attended the event, the Celebration of Life was a welcome opportunity to acknowledge the difficulties they and others had survived with a festivity that joyfully acknowledged and celebrated their resiliency in times of hardship.

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.