Kevin Costner, Others Take Stage at Ventura Benefit for Thomas Fire Victims

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Thousands of people coalesced in downtown Ventura’s Plaza Park on Saturday for a night of big-name musical entertainment powered by a serious purpose.

About 5,000 people packed the park for the sold-out Thomas Fire Benefit Festival, which starred performances by Grammy Award-winning singer Olivia Newton-John, acclaimed actor Kevin Costner and his band Modern West, superstar singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat, swing revival band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and three-time platinum hip-hop and rap artist Super Duper KYLE.

Put together by local community members and organizations, the benefit was expected to raise at least half a million dollars for victims of the recent Thomas Fire, said Kevin Clerici, executive director of Downtown Ventura Partners, which is acting as fiscal receiver for the funds. Sponsors underwrote the entire cost of the event and the artists performed free of charge, allowing every penny of the proceeds to go to those in need, he said.

All the artists performed at the benefit free of charge, organizers said. Many, including Costner, spoke onstage about the hardship caused by the fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes.

An interview with actor Kevin Costner, who went to school in Ventura, at the Thomas Fire Benefit Concert in Ventura’s Plaza Park. Contributed by Sound Off Films

“We often don’t know what to do when this happens, there’s no words. But I’d like to say we’re the only species on the planet that when something goes like this, we might not know what to say but we know to gather,” said Costner, whose set included songs called “The Sun Will Rise Again” and “Stand Strong.”

“We’re here, and the people that are bruised, the people who lost something, they can look at it and know we’re here,” he told the cheering crowd. “We come here to try to make a difference and you have. You’ve made a difference to everybody watching, you made a difference to yourself, you came tonight.”

The event included speeches by the city of Ventura fire and police chiefs, a somber video about the fire’s impact on the community, a rousing performance by the Bank of the Sierra choir, and a moment of silence in honor of San Diego fireman Cory Iverson, who perished while fighting the fire.

Many of those attending said they knew people affected by the fire and wanted to help. Toni Grigg, of Oxnard, was one of them. She attended the event with her husband Cliff and both wore #VenturaCountyStrong T-shirts.

“It was just a small thing that we could contribute to what’s going on,” she said.

The Griggs said they had family and friends who had been forced to evacuate during the fire or had lost homes.

Like the Griggs, Margaret Murphy, of Ventura, said she and her friend Kathleen Whitley, who accompanied her, knew many people who had lost homes.

“I wanted to donate to something where I knew 100 percent would be going to the victims and we also get to enjoy a nice show,” Murphy said.

People who lost their primary residence in the fire can register at to receive a one-time payment from the event proceeds. Money raised will also be distributed to fire victims identified by the county, school districts and local non-profits. These include people displaced from rented accommodation who are now struggling to find a place to live, and those who lost items of value in the fire, said Meredith Hart, deputy director for Downtown Ventura Partners.

She said applications for help will be fully vetted.

Vanessa Bechtel, president and CEO of the Ventura County Community Foundation, which helped organize the benefit, said she was blown away by all the people who made it possible, including hundreds of volunteers.

“I just want to say how grateful we are for this entire team that put this together. It captured the very spirit of what it means to be a community member in Ventura County,” she said. “We couldn’t be more proud of the way our community has come together to support our neighbors in need.”

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