After fire, neighbors help family recover

Rebuilding: A Haitian household is flooded with gifts to begin anew.

February 26, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Each time Jean Pierre got a paycheck, he liked to surprise a family member with a gift.

With a wife, four young children and an elderly father-in-law, the presents piled up quickly in the Pierres' Wilde Lake townhouse. Until this month, when a fire destroyed the home and nearly all of the clothes, toys and jewelry Pierre had taken home to his family.

"Everything precious we had is lost," Pierre said.

But while Pierre, 42, and his family mourn the loss of their home and possessions, they are quickly beginning to appreciate other gifts, often from strangers. Since the family's home burned, they have been inundated with offers of clothes, furniture and even a house from friends and neighbors.

"It shows how generous the American people can be. We have friends that we've never even met before," Pierre said during an interview in his new home in Owen Brown, which he is renting from St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church.

Pierre, who immigrated with his family from their home in Cayes, Haiti, in 1994, was planning a surprise 50th birthday party for his wife Feb. 8. He cashed two checks for about $1,800, part of which he planned to use to help pay for the party, and hid her gifts - a perfume set, a watch and a bracelet.

While most of the family gathered in the kitchen, Pierre smelled something strange. He went upstairs and opened a bedroom door, where he found a wall of flames. A few family members briefly tried to fight the blaze, but "it was all over the house," Pierre said. "There was nothing we could do."

Among the items destroyed: the nearly $1,800 Pierre had cashed earlier in the day.

"I was going to put it in the bank on Monday," said Pierre, who drives a forklift for Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Immediately after the fire, Pierre and his family were helped by the Red Cross, which put them up in a hotel for four nights.

"I knew we could stay with friends and family, but there are seven of us," he said. "That's a lot for anyone to handle."

While the Pierres stayed at the hotel, many of their neighbors worked to get the family clothes and furniture. Students and parents at Wilde Lake middle and high schools, as well as coaches from the Pierre children's sports leagues, began collecting money and supplies for the family.

Stephanie Gurwitz, a parent who is helping collect money, said she has not totaled the amount and is still receiving checks.

"It's really encouraging because it lets me know that we're part of a community ... and you know that if you were the one in the fire, they would help you out, too," said Gurwitz, whose son Solomon Zurier attends Wilde Lake Middle School with Pierre's 13-year-old son.

St. John the Evangelist is providing the Pierre family a home in Owen Brown at a steep discount. The church owns the townhouse and often leases it to people who are down on their luck until they can get back on their feet.

`A healing place'

"We hope that this can be a healing place for them," said Barbara Hope, the church's social ministries director.

Family members, who had been staying with friends, moved into the home last weekend. Most of them are sleeping on the floor but, after nearly two weeks of staying in unfamiliar houses, it is a welcome change to have the whole family together, Pierre said. The family may stay in the home until late July but hope to find a new, permanent home soon.

"We want to find our own home, but this is a beautiful place. We can be a family here," Pierre said.

Photographs recovered

The Pierres are gradually replacing their lost possessions. Jean Pierre recently went back to their Wilde Lake home and dug out water-soaked, ash-smeared pictures, which he is carefully drying in his new basement.

The house is beginning to fill with donated furniture and clothes. And Pierre's cell phone is almost constantly ringing with more people trying to help.

"Yes, we need almost everything," Pierre said into his phone recently, talking with someone who was offering clothing.

"Thank you, that would be great. That would be wonderful," Pierre said.

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