Quick Take:

Susan True and her team at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County were the crucial link between Santa Cruz County’s donors who wanted to help and the many who needed that help

If the folks at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County were ever given to soul-searching, to self-doubt about their mission in the community or what good they were doing, this much we know: It certainly didn’t happen in 2020.

In the year of a worldwide viral pandemic — and both the public health and economic chaos it caused — of tragic and historically devastating wildfires, and of painful debates about social justice and electoral integrity, the role the Community Foundation played in helping its community survive was never clearer.

Lookout’s 21 for ’21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

And, during 2020, in the drama of Santa Cruz County’s response to one crisis after another, the Foundation and its staff were always, in the words of a hit musical from pre-pandemic times, in the room where it happened.

Like similar institutions in communities across the country, CFSCC works as a critical link between local philanthropists and corporations that want to help those suffering or in need, and the ground-level nonprofits who have the connections and infrastructure to provide that help.

In a crisis, that often means foundation dollars have to be directed and deployed even more quickly and efficiently than usual, and foundations are often called on to develop creative means to maximize the impact of their giving.

In 2020, the Community Foundation established a COVID-19 fund to address the most immediate needs of food and rental assistance, and distributed grants to food banks, charities, immigrant services organizations and other non-profits. By year’s end, those funds had distributed more than $5 million.

It worked with the county health department to establish SAVE Lives Santa Cruz County, an action plan for slowing the spread of the virus, and it brought together more than a dozen business and non-profit leaders as an Economic Recovery Council to lead small businesses through the crisis.

During the CZU fires, the foundation created funds that granted more than $720,000 to needy families and partnered with producers Jon Luini and Matthew Swinnerton for “Love You Madly,” a high-profile musical benefit event, which raised more than $110,000.

Susan True
Susan True Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

The pandemic year started for the staffers at the Community Foundation much like it started for everyone, with a sense of foreboding. Susan True, the foundation’s CEO, was on a plane on Valentine’s Day, a full month before shelter-in-place. The news in the airport terminal was reporting on people stranded on cruise ships because of outbreaks of the coronavirus. “People were weird in the airport,” she remembered.

Kevin Heuer, the Director of Engagement and Impact at CFSCC, was at the Tannery in early March with more than a dozen other folks in the foundation arena “sitting around a table trying to divvy up a couple hundred thousands dollars in grants, and people’s cell phones just started pinging with alerts. Somebody kinda chuckled, ‘Oh, Tom Hanks has it now.’

I just remember everybody walking out of that meeting with the Tannery making that transition. We walked in feeling, this is going to be interesting to see how America and the world figure this out. And walking out, we were all just kinda like, Oh my God, there’s no stopping this thing. What are we going to do?”

When the shelter-in-place order was put into place and the schools closed, many local service agencies were consumed with a wave of need. Food banks were among the first organizations to sound the alarm. As a part of disaster planning, the Community Foundation had set aside a number of pre-approved grants, and in those first days, True said, the mission was “Let’s just get money out the door right away.”

The dimension of what was happening became clear to the CFSCC team during the end of March at a food bank drop at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. “It struck me, the gravity of it all,” said True, “watching the cars lining up on Beach Street. And Kevin was like, ‘Hey, there’s the clerk at the record store’ and I was like, ‘There’s the person who makes my chai at the Bagelry.’ These truly are our neighbors.”

Cars line up near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz.
Cars line up near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz food distribution on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020 in Santa Cruz, Calif. (Photo/LiPo Ching) Credit: LiPo Ching

Jenny Kurweil began in her position as Communications Officer that first week of lockdown. She was charged with creating streamlined messaging for fundraising and to raise awareness of what was needed on the ground.

Heuer and Stacey Marie Garcia launched a needs assessment to get a clearer picture of what non-profits were facing. Unemployment spiked and more people were turning to social services for help. Susan True turned to fundraising.

On top of playing bucket brigade between donors and philanthropists who wanted to help and the non-profits that desperately needed that help, True began crafting a public-health campaign to bring people as much science and practical information as was available.

“I called every single smart person who I knew,” she said, including biologists, engineers, doctors, communications specialists. “We couldn’t just feed people forever. We’ll do that too, of course. But we have to make sure we were doing something to stop this pandemic.”

The result was a partnership with the county called SAVE Lives Santa Cruz County, part of which was designed to get cutting-edge science — specifically in the person of UC Santa Cruz biologist A. Marm Kilpatrick — front and center as people searched out reliable information.

Later, True and her staff convened the Economic Recovery Council, bringing together many of the county’s most influential business and finance leaders to help small businesses stay afloat in what was increasingly looking like a business apocalypse.

Then, of course, in the middle of the pandemic summer, with unemployment still at high levels, a dry lightning storm brought on one of the most devastating natural disasters in Santa Cruz County history.

The CZU fires put an emergency on top of an emergency. A fire fund was established and community donations poured in. The volume of those who wanted to help and those who needed the help dramatically increased. The CFSCC website logged about 47,000 visitors at the height of the fires, “which was about 47 times higher than normal,” said True.

Stacey Garcia, the foundation’s Engagement Officer, was among the hundreds of locals who had to evacuate their homes and, in Garcia’s case, find a temporary home for their chickens. At the same time, she was constantly on the phone trying to find resources for often panicked, perplexed people displaced from their homes.

“We are a mighty crew,” said True, “but there are not many of us. For instance, credit card donations are not a big part of our business. We usually have 175 or 180 credit-card donations a year to our website. In those five weeks during the fires, we had almost 6,000 credit-card donations.

Susan True
Credit: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz

I can’t believe how good people are. I can’t believe how much people care about their neighbors. — Susan True

“Just the processing of that, thanking everyone, making sure they get their IRS donation letter, making sure their donation gets to the right place. We take that role very seriously. Every single person here felt like they were lucky because we are in a position to help. But every single person was crushed by the workload. We are just starting to come out of that underwater feeling.”

True said that 2020 underscored how important it is for a community to be prepared to help itself and not depend on outside factors. “The feds threw us to the wolves,” she said. “The state was up and down like a yo-yo. That’s why, looking at (the local response), why I’m so optimistic. I can’t believe how good people are. I can’t believe how much people care about their neighbors.”

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...