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'Trying to Lead' 

Mayor Debra Garnes is helping tiny Rio Dell do big things

click to enlarge Rio Dell Mayor Debra Garnes (right) delivers supplies as part of the Rio Dell Volunteer Corps.

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Rio Dell Mayor Debra Garnes (right) delivers supplies as part of the Rio Dell Volunteer Corps.

The April 2 letter was addressed to "My fellow Rio Dellights," and had all the warmth and reassurance of a fireside chat. It acknowledged the gravity of the situation, noting that none among us — not even our oldest neighbors — has experienced something like this before.

"The stress is greater, the fear is greater and the anxiety is greater. Some of us may feel out of control and to the extent that our daily actions are being driven by a virus, we are out of control," wrote Rio Dell Mayor Debra Garnes. "However, there are things we CAN do to reassert some control and push back against our common enemy: the coronavirus."

From there, Garnes' letter pivots to quickly stressing the need for social distancing — warning that people must understand that 25 percent of people infected by the virus will show no symptoms — before getting to the heart of her message: We may be socially distanced but we can still be "spiritually connected." She urges residents to "practice humanity ... exercising kindness, compassion, empathy and patience." She asks them to use technology to stay connected, exercise, put idle time to good use cleaning or gardening, and find something joyful in each of their days, like noticing "a spring flower in bloom or the fog playing through the trees on the bluffs."

In the face of an unimaginable challenge, Garnes, who was elected to the Rio Dell City Council in 2014 and whose fellow council members voted to make her the city's first African American mayor last year, is showing that a small city mayor can lead in a big way. In addition to communicating clearly and directly with the city's nearly 4,000 residents, she's also put her boots on the ground as a member of the Rio Dell Volunteer Corps, which is helping the riverside hamlet live up to its motto of being the "Warm Hearted City."

When it became clear a few weeks ago that at least some of Rio Dell's residents would be forced into self-isolation, Garnes and a group of city leaders — including City Manager Kyle Knopp, chamber President Nick Angeloff and Sara Faught of the Community Resource Center, to name a few — realized a response team would be needed and began seeking out potential members. One could argue this effort is of particular value in Rio Dell, where household incomes are about 25 percent less than the county average, according to the U.S. Census.

But as Garnes said, the corps is really about supporting neighbors, whatever that looks like.

"We're really thinking of it in a holistic manner. People 65 and older are self-isolating and sometimes they are alone and they might need someone to talk to, to reach out to," said Garnes said. "We're building it as we go. The bottom line is that we're trying to do everything we can to help our seniors in any way." 

As of April 7, Knopp said the effort had turned up 20 volunteers and was using a church facility, the chamber building and city hall to get together the supplies. The city manager said they're providing protective gear to volunteers and need to make sure individuals are vetted and coordination efforts stay manageable. 

"So right now, a small number of volunteers can go a long way. But down the road, we may need more," Knopp said in an email to the Journal.

In its first week, the team distributed 25 bags full of canned and dry goods to seniors throughout Rio Dell and has since tallied 36 deliveries. But Knopp said the group has received an additional 12 requests for services from people previously unidentified, meaning they were not registered with any other senior assistance programs through the city. That speaks to the difficulty of reaching some of the targeted demographic of individuals 65 or older.

"We have to create that registry from scratch. Most in this group do not use social media, so we have to go back to traditional outreach, mail and neighbors," he said, adding the city is sending out direct door mailers that will explain how to sign up, noting not every senior wants or needs help.

"We anticipate that the need for this service will increase the longer the shelter-in-place order is maintained," Knopp said. "Our goal is to build capacity and prepare for that increased demand and possible extension of the service beyond the target group of 65 and older, if the need dictates."

But for the time being, Knopp said the group is just trying to make sure anyone 65 or older and people with disabilities know the service is available and that they can contact city hall (764-3532) if they need any form of assistance.

"Our goal has been to reach out to seniors and disabled persons who are under the radar of other assistance programs and need a temporary bridge help to get through the shelter-in-place-order," Knopp said. "We're off to a great start."

Garnes' role talking Rio Dell through this crisis and helping to lead direct responses to immediate needs that will keep vulnerable populations in their homes is just the latest turn in a varied and remarkable life. The same could be said of Rio Dell's becoming the first local city with a structured, city orchestrated outreach response to match volunteers with those in need of a helping hand.

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Garnes served as a gunner's mate in the U.S. Navy, spending four years stationed in Hawaii. She then spent years in Sacramento, supervising the removal of hazardous materials like lead and asbestos from the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. Her life took a dramatic turn at the age of 34, when she found a lump in her breast, underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and met the woman — Elizabeth Warren (but not that one) — who would become her wife.

Twenty-five years later, 11 of them married, Garnes would say it was "a shared positivity" that brought her and Warren together. In a radical change from Sacramento, the couple spent a year off the grid — relying on generators and water from a spring — in Zenia, a remote part of Trinity County, while looking for the home they eventually found in Rio Dell. From a distance, it might seem an odd fit.

Starting in the late 1800s and through the early 1900s, the town formerly known as Wildwood was dominated by rough and tumble Pacific Lumber Co. workers from Scotia, the company town just across the bridge. The now quiet main drag brimmed with bars and brothels, earning the "wild" in the old name that remains on Wildwood Avenue. It was ultimately a need for a police department that pushed Rio Dell toward incorporation in 1965 and for decades its reputation as Scotia's scrappy cousin persisted.

"You'd think you drop an interracial lesbian couple in this place in the mountains," Garnes said, her voice trailing off during an interview last year before adding that the city has shown her the same warm welcome as resident, city councilmember and mayor. "There was a time, apparently, when I would not have been welcome here but I have not had a single incident. I give mad props to the citizens of Rio Dell."

In many ways, it appears the sentiment is mutual as before COVID-19 hit Humboldt, Garnes was already receiving local plaudits for the way she gave voice to community concerns over a large-scale proposed wind farm project on the ridges to the town's south and met with Gov. Gavin Newsom to discuss low-income housing needs.

And now she's helping the community navigate COVID-19, both by being a calming, reassuring voice and helping get people exactly what they need, whether it's a bag of food or just a phone call. Garnes said she initially reached out to Knopp about addressing the community because she realized quickly the stakes are high.

"I felt we needed to get out there and tell people to stay home, just reinforce that message," she said, adding that even in quiet Rio Dell she was noticing empty streets for a few days but then would be alarmed to see people out. "It needs to keep being restated because when you get cabin fever, you just want to ignore it. ... This is one of those times we individually can make the difference. We can shift things. All we have to do is stay at home. It isn't deep."

Neither is the concept of the volunteer corps; it's just a way for neighbors to help neighbors get through a trying time.

"We are trying to lead, to be ahead of as much as we can," Garnes said. "The whole united part of the United Sates — we need to see that. We need the whole country to be in lockstep or it's going to be a disaster — it's going to be deadly."

North Coast Journal staffers Jennifer Fumiko Cahill, Iridian Casarez and Kimberly Wear contributed to this report, which also included reporting from the Summer/Fall 2019 issue of the Humboldt Insider.

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