A showering of generosity
AFTERMATH: Many fire victims receive an outpouring of help, often from strangers.01:31 AM PST on Wednesday, December 24, 2003
By DEVONA WELLS, MICHAEL FISHER and BETTYE WELLS MILLER / The Press-Enterprise
Ever since their Waterman Canyon house burned in October, JoDee and Steve Ewing have witnessed the sometimes boundless capacity for kindness.
A couple the Ewings have never met wrote a check for $500. Another donated a washer and dryer. Twenty bags of used clothing have come from a woman working at Casino Morongo, where Steve is a plumbing foreman for the casino's expansion.
The Ewings' family and friends also have stepped in with donations of money and life's necessities. And, of course, their time. With no insurance money expected to pick up the cost of rebuilding, a church group cleared the Ewings' property of debris. A collection of friends, soaked by a Sunday afternoon downpour, helped install the trailer JoDee and Steve will live in while they build a new house.
One of Steve's older brothers and his wife gave the couple $12,000 to help with the down payment on their trailer.
Beyond the immediate response of disaster and charity organizations, many victims of the October wildfires have been showered with generosity. The giving has touched not only the Ewings, but also Penn and Susan Lenson, who lost their home east of Temecula, and the Dickey family of north San Bernardino. They are among several families The Press-Enterprise is following in the wake of the fires.
The outpouring of support has come in various, and at times surprising, forms - spontaneous fund-raisers, e-mailed offers of help and kind gestures from strangers and neighbors.
"When a tragedy happens like this, I think it brings out the very best part in the character of people," JoDee said.
Much of the money received by the Ewings has gone to pay for day-to-day life and the costs of clearing their property and establishing a temporary home there.
Being given such household items as dishes and a cordless telephone eases the transition from losing everything to reacquiring it all, said JoDee, who turns queasy at the idea of having to procure every piece of a new life.
A laundry basket of gifts included potholders, salt-and-pepper shakers and a salad bowl. At a weekend show where JoDee sold hand-made bracelets, a group of women surprised her with a new sewing machine. From the Desert Hot Springs couple who sold the Ewings their RV: two TVs, a VCR and paper towels adorned with stockings and holly berries.
After a lifetime of being on the giving side of charity, such generosity can be overwhelming, she said.
"It's very humbling to be on the receiving end, because we've always been fortunate enough to not need anyone's help," JoDee said.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Penn and Susan Lenson lost their home and virtually all their possessions to the Oct. 26 wildfire that tore through the hills east of Temecula. They are stunned and grateful for the help they have received from friends, family and strangers, they say.
Cards of support lay on the bookshelves in the small mobile home the couple now rents, four miles from their devastated home. Some arrived with checks, including $200 from Susan's cousin in the Midwest, a man she last saw more than 35 years ago.
Another friend flew in from Colorado days after the fire to lend support. Before he left, he pressed a wad of cash into Penn's hand, begging him not to return it.
Others donated clothes, linens and furniture, while businesses in town handed out gift certificates for free meals, haircuts and other services. Susan, who runs a house-cleaning business, found her clients loaning her mixing bowls and other essential items.
"I have more sheets now than I have ever had in my life," Susan said.
The community rallied as well. A fund-raiser organized by Wilson Creek Winery and a nearby horse ranch raised more than $70,000, which was evenly distributed among 33 families whose homes were damaged.
"That's Temecula," said Rusty Manning of the Temecula Noon Rotary Club, who oversaw distribution of the money.
"When something happens like this, everyone chips in and pulls through. It's still a small town. It's still neighbors helping neighbors," he said.
A few days after the fire, Jerry Martin of Temecula started collecting donations using a small licorice tub and a handmade sign on the Starbucks table where he and friends meet for coffee most mornings. In two hours, they collected more than $400, he said.
"A girl in my daughter's first-grade class, she came in with her little purse and she had her life savings - conservatively, I'd say about $55 - and she dumped that all in," said Martin, 65, whose daughter teaches at a Murrieta private school.
Overall, Martin and other volunteers collected $4,000 in cash, $810 in checks to the Red Cross, about $5,500 in donations of products, and gift certificates totaling more than $3,000 in oil changes, meals and other services.
The Lensons said the gestures - from donations to touching cards of encouragement - bolster their spirits.
"Everyone has been so thoughtful," Susan said.
Penn recalled going to a restaurant a few days after the fire and getting dinner for half-price.
"We're just grateful," he said. "Things like that make you feel better and it helps you go on."
Touched by kindness
The Dickey family of San Bernardino said they have been touched by the kindness of friends and strangers from as far away as Florida, Hawaii and Canada.
Donations to pay a large veterinary bill for their Rottweiler, Sapphire, still trickle in, said Emma Dickey, 79. Sapphire refused to leave the family's Del Rosa home when the Old Fire swept through on Oct. 25 and was badly burned.
Veterinary bills at an Orange County animal hospital mounted quickly, at one time averaging $1,000 a day, said Karla Dickey, Emma's 38-year-old daughter and owner of the Osbun Road home.
The doctor thought there was an 80 percent chance Sapphire would survive, Karla said.
After paying $10,000 of the vet bill, Karla e-mailed animal rescue groups for help. Crusade for Animals in Van Nuys contributed $2,000. Sapphire died before contributions from other animal rescue groups and individuals began arriving.
"I sent about 40 e-mails," Karla said. "I got 60 responses back. The news just spread."
Because the vet settled the bill for what had already been paid, she notified a local Rottweiler Rescue chapter that had collected donations for Sapphire and asked that the money go to other pets in need.
Emma has since returned checks received after her pet's death.
"It wouldn't be right to keep them," she said.
Help from co-workers
Employees at Sempra Energy in San Diego, where Karla works, raised money for co-workers who lost homes in various fires. The company matched what they raised and presented checks to each of the affected employees on Monday.
Karla said the check covered what she had paid for Sapphire's medical care.
"That was an unexpected bonus," she said. Local members of the Baha'i faith have supported the family as well. Someone began e-mailing Baha'is in other states. Those e-mails were forwarded around the world, Emma said.
Baha'is in Michigan sent a dollhouse and clothes for her grandchildren.
Another sent handmade dolls. Someone else sent a toy stroller.
Friends from Highland, Riverside and Corona visit frequently, bringing kitchen utensils and dishes, linens, food, flowers and prayer books. Another has promised to take Emma to medical appointments.
One brought two delicate Romeo and Juliet teacups and a teapot, a small start at replacing precious items lost in the flames.
"I had nice things," Emma said, caressing the teapot before putting it safely away.
Some Baha'is have sent money, ranging from $5 to $100, she said.
"It's helped with buying food," Emma said. "Even though we lost everything, we still have bills to pay."
Reach Devona Wells at (909) 368-9559 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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