Two months ago today, an apartment fire at 390 Chestnut St. left the community stunned and nine local families with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
With its victims now relatively stable, area agencies involved in their recovery are looking to turn the community’s empathy toward additional victims of loss, many of whom relief representatives say suffer through no fault of their own — Meadville’s needy and homeless.
“We want to thank everyone for how awesome the community was to rally behind these people,” said Amy Rectenwald, executive director for the United Way of Western Crawford County. “The outpouring shocked every one of us.”
In collaboration mainly with Center for Family Services, Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program (CHAPS) and American Red Cross, Allegheny Region Chapter in Reno, the local United Way and its fellow agencies collected thousands of dollars worth of monetary donations and household essentials to get the fire victims back on their feet.
Donations continued to pour in several weeks after the incident, leaving these agencies with an unfamiliar problem — how to organize and sort an otherwise unmanageable level of donation assistance.
“I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Linda Bennett, CFS executive director. “We let the fire victims come help themselves. Regardless of their income, they lost everything.”
People can walk through the CFS lobby now, but other areas are still crowded with boxes of paper products, cleaners and more, all sent for the families displaced from their apartment units.
And in a world where these agencies often find substantial funding and goods hard to come by consistently, the flood of donations makes a noticeable difference, according to Lynn McUmber, executive director for CHAPS, which deployed its housing advocates and other services to the fire victims.
“It really hit people’s hearts,” she said. “The fire and the aftermath were visible. You saw it there one day and it was gone the next.”
Visibility was probably the main force driving the empathy felt across the community — empathy which has otherwise been difficult to obtain, she explained.
“You can put yourself there, in their shoes,” she said. “That’s the kind of trauma we see here every day for all different reasons, fire, domestic violence, money troubles, job loss, mental issues, etc. We don’t often see this level of empathy for those tragedies.”
In terms of fires alone, the Chestnut Street incident response trumped that of all 41 cases opened by the American Red Cross, Allegheny Region Chapter since July of last year, according to Mary Rogers, executive director.
Each case represents a Crawford County family assisted by the organization through fire response.
“I’ve been with the Red Cross for over six years and I have not seen a response of this magnitude,” she said. “And it’s been a busy fire season this year.”
Red Cross volunteers interviewed most if not all the Chestnut Street fire victims within about 24 hours of the incident, gathering information to offer rental assistance and other immediate aid.
“The American Red Cross responds to disasters whether we have the money to or not,” Rogers said. “We work with the families throughout their recovery and assist them with what we can financially before referring them to other agencies to get anything else they might need.”
Agency leaders remain confident community members will kick back into gear should disaster strike again, but they also urge them to keep their fellow man, woman and child in mind as those needy struggle day to day, McUmber said.
“We’ve seen the potential and heart in this community,” she said. “We’re not asking them to clean out their closets (to donate) every week, but more people need support.”
Supporting a neighbor in need
CHAPS serves more than 300 people per year who are homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition, according to McUmber.
Struggling individuals put a strain on the community’s economic and social health — an issue which requires community involvement, she explained.
“If you can invest in somebody, they can contribute,” McUmber said. “We witness that every day, whether it’s living in town, renting, purchasing goods, (etc.).”
A potential first step, she suggested, is for local individuals to drop any negative perceptions regarding welfare and the area’s poor, thereby opening potential channels to support a neighbor in need.
“I’d like to see people not put down the homeless,” Bennett echoed. “Have empathy for them like (for the) Chestnut victims. The cause might be out of their control, like the fire.”
She agreed a constant outpouring of money isn’t realistic, but she believes the community as a whole can break the preconceived notions and negative stigmas surrounding the homeless and destitute.
“People didn’t know if these nine families had jobs, they just felt badly for them,” Bennett said. “But not so much for the homeless guy on the street. The work we do goes to help people. That’s what we want to instill in the community.”
Volunteerism is vastly encouraged throughout these agencies, as well as political advocacy, donation-drive organization and other levels of involvement, which agency leaders believe anyone can join to some extent.
“We’re always looking for volunteers to help with disaster response, especially in Crawford County,” Bennett said. “If not financially, then support other agencies that can provide additional (resources). It certainly helps when we help folks recover and get the items to start over.”
And every little bit counts, as emphasized by several organizations, whether facing disasters or living day to day.
“I hope this opened people’s eyes,” Bennett said of the Chestnut Street fire. “Anything can happen to anyone. Without the community getting involved, it wouldn’t have been the happy ending it turned out to be.”
You can help
Anyone interested in volunteering for or supporting one or more agencies may contact them at the following locations:
American Red Cross, Allegheny Region Chapter — 1643 Allegheny Blvd., Reno, Pa.; (814) 677-2024
United Way of Western Crawford County — 415 Chestnut St., Meadville, Pa.; 337-1251
Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program — 944 Liberty St., Meadville, Pa.; 333-2924
Center for Family Services — 213 Center St., Meadville, Pa.; 337-8457