Story by: CHRIS SMITH

It’s hard to believe Wes Winter will leave Sonoma County.

For just one more week chief of the Family Justice Center in Santa Rosa, Winter has for 30 years been a local human-services leader who’s helped to make this place as neighborly and habitable as it is.

“I’m going to miss it up here,” said the past head of Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, Mendocino County’s North Coast Opportunities and the Windsor-based Circuit Riders Productions.

Winter, 63, said “up here” because he’s headed down there. He and his spouse, Steve Gustafson, will move to Palm Springs.

We’re losing them to the exodus of people whose homes burned in October 2017.

***************************************************

IT’S SO HARD. Those were some of the words Winter used to describe the experience of the past 15 months.

“It’s been such a tough go … exhausting,” he said. “The rents have gotten so expensive. It’s just been a lot of emotional effort.”

He and Gustafson had lived since 2002 in a home they owned off Old Redwood Highway in the Larkfield area.

“We loved it,” Winter said.

The neighborhood was ravaged by the Tubbs fire.

Winter and Gustafson lived in an apartment in Petaluma until they found a house to rent in west Santa Rosa. They wrestled, as so many other fire survivors have, with what to do next.

As they confronted the myriad complexities involved in rebuilding their house, they sensed the urgency imposed by the knowledge that come October their insurance will no longer pay rental assistance.

Some of the fire survivors who left or will leave Sonoma County picked a hometown because they have relatives or friends or job prospects there. Winter and Gustafson own a small house in Palm Springs.

They came to agree at last, “Let’s just go there.”

“It’s taken a year and a quarter to make a decision,” Winter said.

He looked into work prospects in Coachella Valley and found a job.

***************************************************

HE’LL START FEB. 18 as executive director of the Mizell Senior Center. “It’s similar to our Council on Aging,” Winter said.

He leaves feeling good about the Family Justice Center and his nearly six years there. The center is home to a team of public and private agencies that assist local residents haunted by crimes that include domestic violence, sexual assault, child and elder abuse and stalking.

What has Winter liked most about running the place?

“You get to see people’s lives changed every day,” he said. He told of watching people walk in with their shoulders slumped and their eyes turned downward.

They are listened to and assisted, he said, and they walk out with their confidence restored. “They have a new direction to go in.”

****************************************************

HERE AND THERE: Leaving Sonoma County isn’t easy for Winter and Gustafson.

“Other than the people and the community,” Winter said, “we’re going to miss things like Armstrong Woods, walk in the laguna.”

But Coachella Valley has its attractions, and the new full-time residents will have much to explore.

“It feels like the right move to make,” Winter said. Godspeed.

Click here to read the original story.