“Get me the specs, and I’ll get you the power.” That was the first “let’s get it done” order I received from Abe Powell. It was the middle of February 2018, and I was searching for three-phase power and a parking spot for a 20-foot industrial freezer.
Up until this point I was calling around to businesses in Montecito that Google Maps showed had a fairly large parking lot and asking if their building had three-phase power. It wasn’t a very effective strategy, but I did get a chance to talk to a lot of members of the community about my conservation project, which was aimed at mold remediation and salvage of items being dug out of the debris flow. What I learned is that residents of Montecito were committed to helping their fellow community members and were wary of new pop up projects, with the exception of the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade.
I became used to telling the story of how I ended up running around looking for freezer parking: In the beginning of February, I was referred to local volunteers who knew a couple of people with six items they wanted conserved from the debris flow. The volunteers were looking for an estimate to repair these, with a possibility for more to come. A conservator can’t give an estimate for work without seeing the item first, so I proposed a free assessment day, which took place at Montecito Library. Members of the community could bring anything they wanted, and I would help where I could and give out resources and contacts for other conservators with different specialties.
An hour into the day I stopped and asked one of the volunteers, “Does anyone realize there is a huge mold problem going on?” Most of the people there were surprised by my mold diagnosis of their objects. I was surprised, too, though I shouldn’t have been. If I had stopped to think about the mechanics of the disaster, it is the only natural conclusion. This was the result of a storm, which meant water — the life-giver of mold. Mud and debris blanketed the town, which prevented the objects from drying and created a micro environment. That, along with the items themselves providing a food source, created the perfect breeding grounds for mold and insects.
As I looked around the room and tried to advise people on what to do, I realized that in this instance they were completely alone without help or guidance. Not from a lack of caring or funding, but from the lack of a trained professional locus point. The week following this event I thought a lot, called other conservators, did some research, and decided to try a project that had never been done before — conservation support on a community basis.
First I talked to Christian De Brer at the Fowler Museum who recommended Martin Containers for a portable freezer. They had run similar remediation program, and he was chock full of helpful advice. Martin Containers wanted to help as much as possible and put two freezers on hold for me at an extremely deep discount. The project also received seed funding from Congregation B’nai B’rith to get it off the ground and acquire the first wave of supplies.
One freezer was going to the Sheriff’s department, and the other was to be located somewhere in Montecito. I called Sherman Hansen of Santa Barbara County Parks and asked for his opinion of the next five places on my to-call list. He put me in touch with Abe.
Abe immediately recognized the need for a conservation service and upon reading the electrical specs for the industrial freezers said there was nothing in Montecito that would be able to handle a power load like that. But, the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade would rent generators capable of handling the power and pay for them. This incredibly generous offer meant that I was able to take Westmont College up on its offer to park the freezer on the campus.
For intake of items, Geoff Green got me in touch with Ben Romo, who offered free studio space in the Montecito Center for Preparedness, Recovery and Rebuilding which the County of Santa Barbara was setting up for residents. After a couple weeks of cold calling the pieces had fallen into place, and all that was left was to fire up the generators.
Waiting for the generator delivery was the first time Abe and I had a chance to chat more in depth about my project, and he was asking all the questions I had gotten used to from residents trying to suss out my intentions and qualifications.
My family is from Buellton, so Santa Barbara and Montecito were near and dear to my heart, which checked off the local credentials. I graduated with a Masters in Conservation, Works of Art on Paper, from Camberwell College of London in 2016; check for professional credentials. I just finished a fellowship at UCLA library at the end of January 2018; check for acceptable reason for having months of free time.
Abe’s next question was one that I hadn’t encountered yet, “Are you worried about heading up a project for months to help people you’ve never met?”
“Oh, no. I did humanitarian aid work in Kosovo after the war, so this should be old hat,” was my response. Which we both looked a little startled at. Abe was startled because this wasn’t the answer he was expecting, and I was surprised that I had offered up my Kosovo history to a stranger.
Kosovo isn’t something I talk about much. People are wildly fascinated and I never feel like there is an appropriate way to tell them that their latest interesting tidbit left me with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Basically, I spent nine months there with my family, and war zones are completely awful, hence the trauma.
My casual answer needed to be amended a little when I did clarify that I was worried about my C-PTSD, which made it hard for me to volunteer to help people as I had in Kosovo. But I have spent years getting better, and since I was going to be helping objects and not people, I was confident this was something I could do.
I officially started accepting drop-off objects on March 8, and the need was readily apparent. My space was soon flooded with items, and I was grateful for volunteers and my previous database experience because those two things were essential to the survival of the project.
Over the next few weeks the relationship between 805 Conservation and the Santa Barbara Bucket Brigade became more formalized as they became our nonprofit umbrella and provided the rest of the funding needed for the project. Now I could just focus on the objects.
My specialty is paper-based objects. As I’m sure you can imagine, every type of object came my way while doing this project. I am fortunate that conservation as a profession is obsessed with sharing knowledge. I quickly found a group of conservators with different specialties who were happy to share their knowledge and experience. They guided me through textiles, metal pieces, ceramic, paintings, and stuffed animals.
From the very beginning I wanted the project to be free for the public and for there to be no restrictions on what people could bring me. As soon as you got involved with the disaster, stories of the cost, in a monetary sense, were rampant. People felt like breathing came with a bill. I wanted cost to not be factor to people getting the help they needed with something that could have health and safety implications for them. Since this was Bucket Brigade’s feeling as well, it just confirmed the synergy of our working groups.
Having no restrictions on what people brought me caught everyone off guard. Pretty much everyone asked me, “Are you sure about that? Do you think the families will take advantage?” To which I replied that, I had faith in the families. And they proved me right.
Every family who brought me items self-edited what they brought. Understanding that the service was free actually made them more decisive about what they wanted conserved. They didn’t want to overwhelm me, and they wanted to make sure I had time for as many families as possible. As the project went on and the work piled high, families would bring me snacks and drinks in the hot afternoons. They would bring me supplies if they noticed I had been running low and would occasionally do small tasks, like taking out my full trash. And I got many, many hugs as the project began to wear on me.
Remember how I said that I was confident that my C-PTSD wouldn’t be a problem because I was helping objects and not people? Well what I didn’t realize at the time that fixing objects does help people. I had no comprehension of the impact it would have or the bond it would forge between us all.
How do we connect with other people? It often begins with sharing personal details. Then you find a point of common ground, and you share more until a connection is forged. Going through a family’s personal belongings is a free fall into family memories. Then, when I would meet up with the families, they would tell me the stories that went with the objects. Over time general concern for strangers became a deep caring for friends.
I started to get stressed out, and I was tired all the time. But, I still had good boundaries and wasn’t having panic attacks, so it wasn’t my C-PTSD being triggered. When talking with crisis counselors from California Hope 805, who worked in the same building, they suggested I might have compassion fatigue. Dr. Charles Figley defined compassion fatigue as a “state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”
It was a light-bulb moment for me. That was what I was feeling, and it made perfect sense. The heart has endless reserves to care about people, but the body and mind need a bit of patience and understanding while they catch up. And I hadn’t been giving myself any time or space to catch up. An essential component of moving through compassion fatigue is self-care and self-compassion.
Now I debated about including this bit about my emotions. It seemed pointless to write about, but so far every time I’ve talked about compassion fatigue, multiple people have chimed in and said, “That’s what I’ve been feeling, too.” It is a common set of feelings among anyone who jumps in to help. And since most of us are caregiver type personalities, we never pause and assess our own needs. So, if you are using this as a jumping-off point in your own community, look up compassion fatigue, use the techniques to stop it from happening, and help others.
Caring begets caring, and through this project I was fortunate to join a chain that wound throughout the entire community and worked to make sure survivors and responders alike got everything they needed. I got support and help from my fellow nonprofits, volunteers, and the families. They all collaboratively gave me everything I needed to finish out the project and safely return the objects to the family members. This project has been one of the best of my life. I know I will carry the connections formed, the love felt, and the stories told with me for the rest of my life.