Women’s Group Steps in After the Smoke Clears

Auxiliary helps out victims of fires, provides scholarships and
support for one another
Gilroy – After Gilroy’s firefighters have conquered the flames, after the smoke has cleared, their partners step in quietly, to offer a hand to survivors.

Over the past two decades, the Women’s Auxiliary has provided thousands of dollars of aid to Gilroy residents victimized by fire, and provided a social network for firefighters’ wives and girlfriends, who share the stresses of the job with their partners.

Their help is given freely, without the red tape that constrains insurance companies and even some larger nonprofits. The auxiliary demands no paperwork and no receipts. Instead, the group hands out money to families in need, and lets the recipients choose how to spend it.

“We don’t put any parameters on that money,” said Denise Besson-Silvia, the Auxiliary’s fundraising coordinator. “We tell them, ‘Here, use this as you see fit.’ “

As firefighters’ partners, the group’s members are uniquely attuned to fire emergencies, and find out quickly when a family is in need. Some victims are left, literally, with only the clothes on their backs. Within a day, the auxiliary can connect with a family, providing them with the cash to pay for everyday necessities such as food, clothes and toiletries, or even a temporary motel stay.

“They don’t get much fanfare,” said city council member Russ Valiquette, who learned about the group while working as a paid call firefighter, “and they do a lot for the community.”

Its signature event, the Fireman’s Ball, draws supporters to Gilroy’s Elks Lodge for music, cocktails and raffle prizes. Admission and raffle tickets refill the group’s coffers, emptied each year in the aftermath of structure fires. Besson-Silvia estimates that the auxiliary raises $4,000 to $5,000 each year. The group rarely saves any money from year to year, said Besson-Silvia: The need is too great.

This year’s Ball, held March 3, raised more than $4,000, she said, from big-ticket raffle items such as hockey tickets, jewelry and even teeth-whitening, donated by local dentist Gary Nishimura and his staff. Tim Slater of Sarah’s Vineyard lubricated the event with free wine. Many donors don’t even need the incentive of a prize, she added: They give cash.

In addition to fire relief, the auxiliary funds two $1,000 scholarships for Gavilan College students entering public safety fields, and provides holiday gifts for families in need. And the group supports its members, too, said Christine Shackel, the auxiliary president.

“We are all in the same boat, in terms of our husbands’ careers and the stress it puts on the family,” she said. “Women’s camaraderie is so important, and this group lets us build relationships with one another.”

Thus far, no male partners have asked to join the group, Shackel said. With Gilroy firefighters living everywhere from San Francisco to Salinas, the organization also serves to draw together the department’s far-flung members.

“We’re like family,” said Shackel.

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