After a local couple lost their home to a fire, three things happened, the first being the instant homelessness of the couple and their two children. Next, since these were people I cared about, I organized a collection to help them start over, and put out a public invitation for anyone to contribute.
Then I noticed people tended toward thinking one of two things. Either “Oh my goodness! How can I help?’ or ‘What could they possibly need? They have insurance, right?”
It became apparent that most of us don’t actually know what families need (if anything) after a fire, so I felt it important to offer my perspective as a behind-the-scenes witness to the true needs of a family in crisis.
The First Thoughts of a Family After a Fire
The morning after their home became a pile of cinder, I met with the young couple. They couldn’t stop talking about their biggest concern; their children.
“How do we help our kids process this?” the mom said, “WE have hardly begun to process this!”
It struck me that they were not lamenting lost identification documents or irreplaceable photographs. They were not wringing their hands over the big screen TV, the collection of books, or the children’s cloths, all of which were ruined. They weren’t even focusing on where they would live in the future. The thing they cared most about, the thing that gripped their hearts about the whole thing, was how this might scar their children emotionally, and how they were going to walk their kids through the trauma.
As we were talking, the dad gasped with realization. “Oh my goodness!” he said, “My son’s Woody doll is his favorite toy. He’s never been without it.” His gaze drifted with thought, “Where am I going to find a Woody doll?”
All they were thinking of was how to help their children feel like they hadn’t lost everything. How could they help meet that deep psychological and emotional need we all have for our own little piece of familiarity. Of normal.
What Could They Possibly Need If They Have Insurance?
Let’s be real. Some of us see pictures of blackened kitchen
appliances and think, “Well, Red Cross will take care of lodging and stuff for
the first day or two, and then insurance will kick in, so they’ll be fine. What
could I possibly add that would help anyway?”
And that’s sort of right.
It’s also sort of not.
If you have fire insurance, coverage kicks in immediately, and they make sure you have food, clothes, and roof for those first few nights. If you don’t have insurance, Red Cross steps in to provide lodging and food. This is true.
So their needs are met, right?
Ask any child who grew up feeling unloved and rejected if being fed and having lodging and being kept alive was enough. Will they say their needs were met?
Ask any married woman whose husband provides for her financially, but runs around on her or ignores her completely if her needs are met.
Ask any employee who gets overlooked or abused at work if the employment and paycheck is meeting their needs. Ask if they feel satisfied, whole, or taken care of.
Ask any one of these if they feel hollow or a little dead inside despite having their basic needs met.
They will say no. Their basic human needs were not met. Because we are not machines.
Science proved long ago what, perhaps, we ought to innately
know; humans have a whole hierarchy of needs, only the most basic one being
physiological. All other human needs are emotional, spiritual, and psychological.
Red Cross and third party insurance companies take care of the basic needs of survival; food, shelter, showers.
People, however, take care of the heart.
” In an emergency, organizations take care of basic survival needs. It’s people though, who take care of the heart.”
Giving when there’s insurance is not about adding to the recipient’s pocket book. It’s not about money at all. It’s about showing compassion to people in crisis.
Heart-Warming Miracles After the Fire
I knew and cared for this couple, and initiated a collection of things for them. Whatever people wanted to give, I would deliver to them. My hope was that they would feel loved and encouraged.
A message came in that someone had prepared some items for the family. I immediately went to collect and deliver it. A mother had told her boys about the two young boys who had lost all their toys in a fire.
The young mom gave a variety of things. Some practical things like toilet paper, some personal hygiene, and some thoughtful things to make an empty house feel like home. Like a scentsy warmer.
The boys in the meanwhile were giving up toys and books from their abundance.
There, amongst other toys, was a Woody doll.
The boy who gave it had no idea of the need he was meeting! I literally couldn’t wait to give it to the couple, so snapped a picture and messaged it to them. I believe their text response was something like, “Wuuuuuuuut?!?!?!!” “No way OMG How sweet could they possibly be.
I can only imagine the look on their teary, smiling faces when they handed that precious doll to their son. Or the way the boy’s eyes grew wide and his grin brightened the whole room.
“Woody!!” When he hugged the doll the room was filled with love and joy and hope. Is there any better way to love a mother than to love her child? I almost cried at the thought.
That’s the kind of compassion and soul satisfaction a sterile hotel room purchased by an insurance company can’t provide. Insurance, however necessary and essential to have, does not replace the human need for compassion, comfort, love, and belonging.
What Things Families Really Need After a House Fire
It can be hard to imagine a family needing anything if, in our minds, they’re put up in a hotel with all the soap, towels, and bedding they could need.
But after the hotel stay those first few days, families
often move to a vacant apartment and start over.
Imagine it: you’re in the middle of an empty house, and now
you’re going to live like it’s a normal day.
What do you need?
Add to that being in the middle of a trauma, and all the brain fog that brings, and it’s difficult for the family to answer the frequently asked question, “What do you still need?”
One of the things I bought for them was a handful of hangers at a local thrift store. The hangers were tied together with rubber band. As I pulled the band off, it struck me that they don’t even have something as small and basic as a rubber band. My mouth hung open with shock as I looked around the room I was in and took stock of the hundreds of things at my fingertips that I take for granted, but often need. Pins. Paper clips. A cup for my coffee. A pen. Paper. Magnets. Sticky notes. Staples. Breath mints. Toothpicks. Batteries. Chargers.
You know that junk drawer we all have, where we often find
that random thing we really really need?
Their junk drawer has one can opener in it.
They need everything. And NONE of those little things even cross their mind as a need until they’re in the moment and needing it. No one in the middle of a crisis makes a shopping list thinking, “Okay, I’m gonna need paperclips and three magnets.”
But you should see their faces when someone gives them a box of envelopes. It’s like someone just walked up to them and gave them the kind of long hug they didn’t know they needed. Someone thought of them. Someone put themselves in their shoes and realized a need they might not have even thought of themselves.
It’s not about them not being able to afford envelopes.
It’s about a family being so overwhelmed by crisis and the massive amounts of items that need replacing and not being able to even think about all the things, much less do the actual collecting of them.
It’s about lifting someone up by thinking of them, showing them they’re not alone, and infusing their sterile hotel room or empty apartment with hope.
What Can I Do to Help?
I was tempted to write a list of specific items to give, but decided not to. As generous givers have demonstrated, it’s not about the thing, it’s about the heart, so I think that’s the best advice; think about the people you’re giving to. Pray about them. Consider what they might be going through. Then give out of compassion and love for them. I don’t think you can miss with that plan.
Giving to the Red Cross is definitely an option. I’d also like to point you to a local Southeast Manitoba program called Pay It Forward. It’s a small, hidden program that organizes donations for those in crisis. Their mission in our disconnected world is to rebuild community or, as program director Rosalie Stelmack puts it, “we want to bring the barn builders back”. The Pay It Forward Program is conducted through Heavenly Pines. Visit Heavenly Pines on FaceBook.
On behalf of the family who had the house fire, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who gave heartfelt gifts through Heavenly Pines or through me. You met a need. Thank you.