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When wildfires blazed through Napa Valley last October, forcing hundreds of families to evacuate their homes, it was volunteers who helped keep emergency shelters running. Two thousand people volunteered 8,000 hours of service – an equivalent of $250,000 in labor – over the course of two weeks, according to the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership (CVNL).

Those volunteers were honored with a luncheon in the Student Activity Center at Napa Valley College – the location of the main shelter – on Saturday.

“We’re trying to say thank you in a very formal way,” Jim Tomlinson, manager of CVNL’s Napa office.

Volunteers did everything from greeting evacuees and sorting through donations to babysitting children and escorting people back home.

Mike Willmarth, a math teacher at Redwood Middle School, said he did “a little bit of everything” during his nine days at the shelter.

First, he said, he brought water. Then he went to the animal shelter to pick up bowls and food for the evacuated animals being housed below the shelter. Then, he said, whenever he saw something that needed to be done, he just did it.

“This was kind of a bigger version of a middle school classroom,” Willmarth said.

And, just like a good day in the classroom, he even had some fun.

“The most fun thing,” he said, was discovering a couple in the college’s secondary shelter area who were celebrating their 66th wedding anniversary.

When Willmarth asked if anyone needed anything, the man came up to him and said he could use an anniversary cake. The couple ended up celebrating their anniversary alongside other evacuees and making a friend in Willmarth who visited them during Calistoga’s Lighted Tractor Parade in December.

“It’s really amazing,” Willmarth said. “When something like this goes down, you start to see the community come together and you see the best of everybody.”

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“I just like coming out and helping people,” said Katrina Holly of Vallejo. Holly and her friend Regina Porter of American Canyon came out nearly every day that the shelter was open to help out.

The two women handed out food to people in the college parking lot and worked inside the shelter making sure people were comfortable, handing out towels and toiletries. They plan on participating in the next Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training so that if something like the fires happens again, they can be better prepared to help.

“It can happen to any one of us anytime,” Holly said.

CERT members who volunteered their time during the fires were also honored at the luncheon.

Narender Singh of Fairfield said he really enjoys giving back to the community through volunteer work. When he isn’t working his day job, he volunteers with the Red Cross and, when the fires hit, he came to Napa on his own to help out.

“I get satisfaction out of it,” Singh said. “I have to work for myself, but this is what I’m doing for my community.”

While volunteering at the shelter, Singh worked at night checking evacuees in and out of the shelter, noting their address and other information. In general, he said, he helped with whatever anyone needed him to do.

After four days in Napa, he said, he was called up by the Red Cross to volunteer in Santa Rosa for another six days.

Although it was a big time commitment, Singh said it makes him happy to help other people. He can’t enjoy himself when he knows others are suffering, he said.

Without these unpaid, untrained volunteers giving up their personal time to help out, the shelters wouldn’t have been as successful as they were, Napa Valley College Police Chief Ken Arnold said.

“(We say) ‘thank you’ to the first responders, but we really never say ‘thank you’ to that second wave of responders,” Arnold said. “The volunteers.”

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Maria Sestito is the former Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She now writes for the Register as a freelancer.