Pictured: Jack, a resident of the Santa Clara River bottom, helps the team deliver oranges brought by Rick Nack. Photo by Karin Muller.
by Kimberly Rivers
What does community look like?
Merriam-Webster defines community as “a group of people sharing a common interest and relating together socially,” and also as “the feeling of closeness and friendship that exists between companions.”
In light of the pandemic, uprisings and protests, and the political bout coming up in November, community and connection seem to have fallen away.
But there are pockets of connection. Places where community is thriving and new relationships are being forged. In Ventura, a group of residents organically came together to fill a need and in doing so have become a coalition of volunteers building bonds with those that sometimes fall by the wayside, especially in times of crisis.
Those bonds are transforming lives.
At risk on the margins
“Quite frankly, after three months of hiking in, we could learn a lot from them about community and taking care of our neighbors and looking out for each other,” said Karin Muller, 55, of Ventura about those living near the Santa Clara River, a group on the margins. Over the last three months, she has hiked daily into the river bottom community to help those living there during the pandemic. Guessing she has hiked about 500 miles so far, she took a break starting in July, and was able to pass the baton.
Rick Nack, a Camarillo resident who works in Ventura, saw the info on social media about what Muller was doing and met her one day at the parking lot to hike in with her. She recalls that he was very quiet that first day, and she was surprised when he said he’d come back the next day. Every Friday Nack picks about 60 pounds of oranges and hauls them in for the riverbed residents each weekend. When Muller expressed a need to step back, he volunteered to hike in every weekend from now on.
Muller, an independent filmmaker for distributors such as National Geographic, has kept her Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license active in the county for exactly this type of event. Her time years ago in the Peace Corps likely contributes to her can-do and service-oriented approach to tough situations.
The pandemic hit and Muller was looking “around to be of use.” She contacted the companies that use EMTs (like ambulance operators), but found “nobody had back-up lists” and she didn’t find any volunteer EMT opportunities with organizations that were active. She had heard about the county’s Backpack Medicine outreach program, which was redirected away from the riverbeds due to the pandemic. Instead the program served homeless residents housed at a local hotel. “That seemed like a need that could be filled and I like to hike.”
“If the virus gets into this community, it will run through it like fire,” said Muller. She said the community size fluctuates between about 150 and 300 people at any given time. “There are a lot of people with health conditions. The goal from the beginning is to keep the virus out of the entire community.”
Muller noted that the “single most useful” thing she may have done is call the county mobile coronavirus testing van when a resident showed symptoms that might indicate COVID-19. She also has helped with minor injuries, within the scope of her EMT license.
She began hiking in through the maze of dirt paths that weave through the undergrowth, the invasive arundo and poison oak. It’s a two-mile hike to get in from Harbor Blvd., and she said for a while she would frequently get lost. But then Nack joined the team, and “he has a good sense of direction.”
According to Muller, she hasn’t had any bad experiences in the past three months, and that in fact it’s been “quite the opposite.” She said the people of this community are “incredibly welcoming, warm and generous. They are part of a functioning community and they take extraordinarily good care of each other.”
On one of Muller’s early treks, she was handing out sandwiches. “I stopped at the camp of an older woman who had been ill. There were three sandwiches stacked up.” They were the ones Muller had been handing out and she came to learn that a few young men had given their sandwiches to the woman “because she needed it more. That sort of thing happens all the time.”
Once an older man had stepped on a rake and injured his foot the night before. “About six different people told me to go see William, he hurt his foot. If I hurt my foot I don’t think any of my neighbors would even know, let alone react if they did.”
“I also don’t see them as a threat or a danger to the town or the county, quite the opposite, they are a potential resource,” Muller explained. Many earn money by recycling. Some sell found golf balls back to the nearby golf course. “That is a great example of a service they provide and some of those guys can fix bikes better than any mechanic. I would love to see them reintegrated.”
A lot of what is needed is to “change our perception that they are people to be pitied,” she said. Some of their homes are “pretty impressive…some have lived there for years and years.” While she said “they are not a problem to be solved,” she does think their lives can be improved, “a solution is out there.”
Baking Brigade forms
After hiking alone for a while, Muller posted on Facebook about what she was doing and whether anyone might want to help prepare food for her to take into the community. She was overwhelmed with responses. So many people were offering to bake and make sandwiches. The baking began with brownies and then transitioned to more healthy options. Teri Jenkins, a retired teacher from Ventura, offered to manage the volunteers, and coordinated the team’s schedule using a Meal Train app. Quickly the app hit capacity at about 40 people.
“In the first days of the pandemic, the lockdowns created a call to action among many in the community. People were desperate to do something,” said Muller. Dubbed the Baking Brigade, it offered “an outlet, a way people could actually help. There is a pent-up desire throughout America, and certainly in Ventura, to pull together and do something as a community. We see too often the rallies and counter protests, the anger and tribalism. For those three months I felt exactly the opposite.”
The Baking Brigade morphed into Beyond Baking Brigade with people providing other needed items like bars of soap, flashlights and first aid supplies.
Dr. Tipu Khan M.D., the founder and director of the Backpack Medicine program, became a resource for Muller. “He is on my speed dial and he’d answer his phone day or night.” Khan suggested resources and helped ensure a county testing team was deployed if a resident had COVID-19 symptoms.
Through Khan the brigade was connected to Jennifer Brynn, a resident of Ojai and local attorney who volunteered to set up a table and help people register for their stimulus checks. Muller says that income became a godsend to some residents, allowing some to move into more traditional housing while others bought cars which allowed them to get jobs.
“A big family unit”
When Muller first entered the river bottom community, she realized the residents had very little knowledge about the coronavirus. Most don’t have phones or electricity, so they can’t access the news. She prepared a document that described the symptoms and how to protect yourself and others. Today she said the residents are fairly knowledgeable and there are signs around the community reminding people to wash their hands.
“They are very aware and very knowledgeable, and that has informed their behavior. They are as careful as they can be,” observed Muller.
Handwashing has been made possible by Nack, who coordinated the installation of a handwashing station, refilled each week by the county. The team hands out soap each week.
Muller realized the neighborhood is actually fairly insulated from the outside community in terms of viral transmission. When the river bottom residents do go into grocery stores or other businesses, “even pre-pandemic everyone already keeps six feet of distance from them, so they’re already protected from outsiders.”
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, there were a few days of steady rain. Several river bottom residents got flooded out of their homes and they were welcomed by residents living on higher ground. “Tents that hold two to three people were now holding seven or eight, they have such a sense of community.” Muller said, pointing out that immediate needs sometimes came before social distancing.
The community adapted its annual Fourth of July celebration, which is usually a large communal meal. One of the resident’s stimulus checks paid for food and meals were prepared for residents to eat at their camps. “As much as they can, they are trying to keep the virus out,” Muller said.
Since the pandemic started, the city’s trash pickup at the community has also ceased. And the residents have no other way to get their garbage out. Muller points out that anything that can be recycled is given to those who earn money from recycling. “I’d have more garbage in a month than they have in a year if I didn’t have garbage service,” she said. About 10 days ago, the city hired a private company and about 50 people came through and did a cleanup.
Muller described the river bottom neighborhood as a “big family unit,” and it’s clear when she shares about the residents and volunteers she’s met that she’s had a powerful experience. “I think I got a lot more than I gave to them…Friendships, a chance to see a community, what a community can be. I went in thinking I didn’t have any preconceived ideas, but I did. I have had those blown out of the water. To realize what a vibrant, creative, smart, friendly community this is.”
“The homeless are not just a problem to be eradicated,” Muller added, suggesting that solutions need to include a way to integrate these individuals back into society in a way that honors their skills as artists, musicians, bike mechanics, etc. that are valuable to the larger community. “The answers are there.”
“What I thought was just a band aid response to a crisis has actually evolved into a permanent, informal organization that will carry on long after I’m no longer here. That is the best feeling in the world,” reflected Muller. “Rick [Nack] is the true hero here. It’s one thing to do something for three months; it’s something else to say, ‘this is my passion,’” and devote “every weekend in perpetuity…A hero was created in these three months. It has renewed my faith in humanity.”
“When I think of that I have hope again. There are really good people out there, and more really good people waiting in the wings…Give them a chance and they will become community heroes.”
View Karin Muller’s 12-minute film, A Love Story to My Community, at https://youtu.be/lNABEMZHIW8.