Nurse Payton Walton matched nearly 9,000 volunteers with 250 families who lost everything, so they could get a fresh start.

By Elizabeth Holmes
Updated January 29, 2018
Payton Walton holding the 1st donation check and note she received for a family
Credit: Courtesy of Payton Walton

As tens of thousands of people fled the wildfires ravaging Northern California last fall, Payton Walton put on her scrubs and headed to work. Walton, a registered nurse with years of experience in ICUs, ERs, and hospice care, spent a week working 12-hour shifts, tending to patients suffering from smoke inhalation and evacuation injuries. The orange flames were visible from the windows of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and the smoke was so intense that the medical staff wore protective masks. “Never in 22 years had I seen anything this bad,” says the 54-year-old.

When she returned to her home, about 45 minutes south of the affected area, Walton was taken aback. Life was carrying on as usual while many Santa Rosa families—including friends from the hospital who lived closer—had lost everything. Walton hatched a plan. She began with a request for help on Nextdoor, sharing her first-person account of the fallout from the fires and offering to pair volunteers with families in need. Within minutes, she had her first response. Hundreds more messages from those willing to give their time and money poured in. Her personalized requests—with names of family members and even dogs—resonated. “Everybody realized: That’s a family, just like mine,” she says.

To identify those who needed help, Walton turned to her friends on Facebook and in real life. She also asked trusted friends to oversee the donations to each family and manage requests and deliveries.

Walton batched the donors into groups of 10 to pool resources and spread out the responsibility. She then assigned each group to a “loss family.” It felt “like being someone’s fairy godmother,” she says. Word spread quickly, and donors began contacting her from outside Northern California.

Once she introduced the group members to one another, Walton took a step back, preferring to let each group decide how to give. One caravanned to a family’s new apartment and divided responsibilities by room. Another filled a storage locker with everything for a new home, then handed the key over to the family, who were staying in a shelter.

The group matched with Shauna Coletti has donated items both big (thousands of dollars in gift cards) and small (Christmas ornaments). “I was just amazed,” says the 38-year-old single mom, who lost her home in the Coffey Park section of Santa Rosa. Today Coletti says nearly half of what she lost has been replaced. “It has made me believe there really are good people out there,” she says through tears.

Walton began the process with a simple spreadsheet. Now she has a website dedicated to helping other fire victims. To date, Walton has matched nearly 9,000 donors with more than 250 families. “The biggest thing I’ve heard from the loss families is, ‘Oh, I really don’t need any help. There must be somebody worse off than me,’” says Walton. “I have to say to them really gently, ‘Your entire house just burned down. You deserve some help.’”