When a group of University Foundation members arrived to help a packed volunteer organizing center at Caring Choices, the hosts needed all the help they could get.
Desperate for someone to work in the call center, the organization’s president, Barbara Hanna, assigned the task to the the first participant who spoke up, a tall woman in jeans and glasses whose hand shot into the air when she asked for volunteers.
“I had never met her before–I just needed somebody to make phone calls,” said Hanna (Nursing, ’75) with a laugh. “She was standing in the lobby ready to help, and she jumped at the first assignment I gave her. A minute later, someone asked me, ‘Barb, do you know who that is?’”
Gayle, as she introduced herself to her fellow volunteers, was University President Gayle Hutchinson. She was taking a break from Chico State’s Emergency Operations Center, wanting like so many others to join relief efforts firsthand.
Since the destructive Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise and surrounding communities on November 8, anyone who wants to help has been told to register with Caring Choices. The 25-year-old nonprofit volunteer center has received more than 4,000 volunteer applications from the community and beyond as it works to serve those suffering in the greater Butte County area.
The outpouring has nearly overwhelmed the emergency volunteer center, a bustling hub of activity since it was activated. The center’s helpers share a unified goal: verify and assign volunteers as quickly as possible.
“People are coming out of the woodwork with good intentions, but sometimes the sheer volume can create problems,” Hanna said. “People often don’t understand that there’s a level of chaos that comes with the sense of wanting to help. We really want to help our volunteers help others the best they can.”
By placing appropriate support where it is needed—whether an evacuation center, animal shelter, or elsewhere—Caring Choices not only helps those with a desire to aid but supports critical relief efforts across the county.
“We keep at it each day. Each morning, we’re asking, ‘Where do we need to go next?’ ‘Who needs us most?'” said Marylin Rees (Music, ’81; Credential, ’82, ’98, ’04; MA, Education, ’00). “These people are dedicated to seeing this through.”
Every day, dozens of helpers hustle around the building, placing calls, navigating computer spreadsheets, shuffling through paperwork, and interviewing volunteer candidates in small offices. Some volunteers sit cross-legged on the floor where there isn’t table space, and most rooms contain multiple whiteboards with scores of names and phone numbers.
That’s where the University Foundation, led by board member Rees, comes in. With the help of Chico State professor Colleen Hatfield and others, Rees’ charge has been to streamline the application and vetting processes for volunteers at Caring Choices, with plenty of student, staff, and faculty assistance.
“The energy in these volunteers is amazing. The community of Chico, from children to University administrators, is getting on board to help the people and animals who need it so badly right now,” Rees said. “It’s important that we as a community not only get to know each other, but to look at how we’re connected to each other. This disaster has really brought us together. Through the University, and through the strength of all the great people in this community, we can do so much.”