Montecito’s Recovery Store

By James Buckley   |   March 22, 2018

There are four women responsible for the attractive, busy, and critical resource center known as the Recovery Free Store, dedicated to victims and first responders of the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris slide. They are Berna Keiler, Cathy Link, Heather Sage, and Susan St. John.

The store, currently parked directly across from Vons in the Coast Village Shopping Center, sports handsome displays of mostly new clothing, shoes, and other vital necessities for those who’ve lost everything, most of everything, or even just a little, in one of our most recent twin calamitous events. The reason the store looks so unlike what one would ordinarily expect to see in any kind of “disaster relief” effort, is because of the backgrounds of the individuals directly involved in its creation.

Berna says she “has always been in the fashion and footwear business” (her ex-husband and she owned Impo International, which has been a big contributor to the store) and has always given clothes to her friends, “So, the Recovery Free Store,” she says, “was a natural thing for me.

“I came back from Asia,” Berna explains, “on the night [the debris slide] happened. We landed in San Francisco at eight in the morning and when we turned our phones on, they just lit up.”

The phone calls were from friends and neighbors describing what had just occurred, beginning around 3:30 that same morning. They were told that the bottom of Parra Grande – where Berna lived with her husband, David Debin – was a disaster, and so was Riven Rock.

It would be two weeks before they found out whether they still had a home or not.

“They wouldn’t let us in and wouldn’t give us any information because they were doing search and rescue, still recovering bodies,” Berna recounts. “We were staying at a hotel and didn’t know. One day, they had us on the map showing which houses were hit and on another day, we weren’t on the map, so we really didn’t know.”

Two weeks went by before the couple finally reached their home with a police escort and were allowed 10 minutes to gather what clothing and other items they could retrieve. They didn’t get back into their house again until February 29.

Berna currently works with Chainson Footwear, which sent 150 pair of brand-new shoes to her house almost immediately. Chainson owns a number of brands in the U.S., one of which, Eileen Fisher, sent 400 brand-new garments. “My house started to fill up after I reached out to my friends too and said, ‘C’mon, give me the shirt off your back!’

“And they did,” she says with a smile.

Finding a Space

Berna wanted to make sure the shirt and shoes were “the good stuff,” because the people’s lives she was serving “had been broken.” When she contacted Montecito Disaster Lost and Found, Heather Sage – a young mother with six children – contacted her and asked what she could do. Berna told her they were collecting clothes, and she said she’d ask the stores where she shopped to help out.

They did. Big time.

Quickly, the women realized they’d need a dedicated store, as Berna’s house was too small and now too crowded. “It needed to be in a good location with easy access and also needed to be ‘Montecito Style,'” Berna says. There was a store in downtown Santa Barbara, but she insisted on having something in Montecito.

Susan St. John and Berna have known each other for a number of years, and they were evacuated together. They stayed together at the same hotel as evacuees. Susan responded to an e-mail by saying she’d “be over there today and I’m bringing my closet.”

And she did.

With her checkbook, she bought gift certificates from Amazon, H&M, Forever 21 and other stores. Then she called Richard Mineards at the Montecito Journal, who did the initial story on her plight. 

Berna zeroed in on an empty space across from Vons, saying, “That’s the space.” Heather promised, “I’m going to talk to my husband (Josh Sage, who runs Ty Warner‘s company) and see If Ty knows James Rosenfield [owner/manager of Montecito Country Mart]. Josh says, ‘I’ll do what I can do.’

“I don’t know what he said or whether or not he contacted James or Ty Warner,” Berna recounts, “but Monday morning, the day after the Kick Ash Bash, I’m at the house with Cathy, Susan, and Heather and the phone rings.

“‘Hi. This is James Rosenfield.’

“I didn’t know what to say to him, so I just started bleeding my heart out and he stopped me.”

‘You know what, Berna? I get it; you got it.’

“I’ve got it?”

‘Yes, you’ve got the space.’

“Well, I don’t know anything about what we need, insurance, utilities, and…

‘I’ll pay for everything. You’ve got the space.'”

Rosenfield told Berna she could have the space for a month and then ‘We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what the need is. We’ll just see. I’ll work with you. I understand.’

“I think this event [the mud-and-debris-slide] kind of broke his heart too,” she says.

Berna emailed her friends, told them the good news, then asked them to come to her house, where she fed them, made a special dessert, then offered them “the opportunity to participate.” Those who couldn’t participate pledged money, at $500 a clip. “We got $2,000 right there,” she recalls.

“They said we needed to hire a manager,” Berna points out. “I’m there seven days a week, from 11 am to 7 or 8 pm, but I really didn’t want to use that money to pay a manager.”

She didn’t have to.

Taiana Giefer, the daughter of Cheryl and Sebastian Giefer, stepped up to help. Her parents are traveling, so Taiana attended the meeting in their place and after listening to everything, she offered to take care of all the social media with her boyfriend, Leo.

Moving In

“The next day,” Berna says, “Wednesday morning, we got an alert to evacuate” because of a forecast of rain. Her house is in the red zone and she had all these clothes there. So, she called James Rosenfield’s secretary, who said he was leaving for Marin but assigned a person to help. In short order, someone arrived with a key to the store.

“We hadn’t signed anything, but we got a mover,” Berna recounts. They packed up and moved everything to the store that same day, then picked up furniture from the house and moved that to the store. Berna called Sheri Mize, a designer in Montecito.

“Sheri, we have beautiful dressing rooms, but they have no drapes on them.”

‘I’ll be there tonight,’ Sheri says.

She went out and got painter’s canvases, came in, and hung everything on Thursday morning. 

The team worked Thursday and Friday and opened Saturday morning.

More good news: “Taiana told us she has just finished her modeling job and didn’t have another one until two weeks from now in Alaska, and offered to manage the store until then. She refused to be paid and would only do so as her donation.

“She’s been here every day, seven days a week, day and night. She helped set up Facebook, Instagram, a website, printed flyers…” Berna marvels.

Then Taiana reached out to her friend Chanti, who will manage the store for the following two weeks. 

Berna and Cathy bought all the rolling rack and hangers on Amazon. They also bought out Costco’s stock of such items. “We wanted the store to have “a certain look, a center of well being,” Berna explains. They contacted the Soup Kitchen, whose members taught the women how to organize their volunteers and gave help and support; they now supply organic soup for lunch, every day. Lynette Briner, who owns Little Alex’s, baked some fresh pumpkin bread. Hudson Home brought candles, baskets, and glass pieces for donations.

How the store works

Donations are given to people who’ve lost their homes or who cannot get back into their homes; people who were burned out. IDs and addresses are checked, and a volunteer sits and speak with them, asks them who they are, where they live. First responders and their families are served too.

People who come in to donate and then want to buy something are told they can’t buy, but if they see some thing that “stole their heart,” they could offer a donation for it. There is also a donation jar for the Soup Kitchen.

Current needs include: furniture, bedding, towels, cooking utensils, dishes, flatware, and other items to restart people’s kitchens, baths, and bedrooms, along with mattresses, pillows, mattress pads…

They are planning an online furniture catalog featuring sofas, tables, and similar items. Transportation for parents trying to get their children to school and/or medical appointments is also needed.

Local stores who’ve helped furnish the Recovery Free Store include Wendy Foster, Pierre Lafond, Angel, Whiskey & Leather, KFrank, and Antoinette. Companies such as Impo, Chainson Footwear, Eileen Fisher, and Simple Shoes have been generous, as have Montecito residents who’ve emptied their closets to donate, much of it with price tags still on them. The bountiful sunflowers everyone receives with their goods were donated by the Lomeli family from Harvest Moon in Carpinteria. 

How to donate: Drop by the store at 1016 Coast Village Road (across from Vons). Or, call Berna at (805) 570-4339. Any day, all day long. 


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