By Ashley Chapman
That morning last January began like every other morning.
Angelina Perez, four months pregnant, had just dropped her seven-year-old daughter Hailey off at school. Her mother, who shared the four-bedroom Bushwick apartment with Perez and her stepfather, was grocery shopping.
Perez, who works the night shift as a court officer, went home for a quick rest.
Within hours, the family’s home of 21 years had burned to the ground.
Perez smelled the smoke first. Then she opened a door and saw an entire wall in flames. Panicked, she awoke her stepfather, called 911, and ran to the firehouse on her block. The firemen arrived minutes later, but by then the entire block was engulfed in smoke.
“You couldn’t see ten feet in front of you,” Perez said.
It took 168 firefighters more than an hour to tame the four-alarm fire, which tore through the roof of the three-story building.
That was a year ago yesterday, January 17, 2012.
Today, Perez still grapples with the devastating loss, but she has also experienced tremendous joy. She has a newborn baby girl named Peyton. She has gained renewed hope about the generosity of humankind. And along the way, Perez has become a passionate advocate for the Red Cross. She speaks at numerous events, has been featured in The Red Cross’ national Stories PSA campaign, and as a result, has even been mentioned in The New York Times.
“This is what I call my ‘pay it forward,’” Perez said. “I like sharing my story with people in case it helps them in anyway.”
When she shares her story with others, she starts with the day of the fire. It was freezing, and Perez had fled the house wearing flip-flops.
“The Red Cross was wonderful,” she said. “They gave us simple things that were so necessary.”
The Red Cross provided everything from shoes and warm clothes to a voucher for essentials. Most importantly, they helped her find a temporary place to stay so that the family could stay together.
When Perez returned to the apartment the next day, there was nothing left to retrieve – no photos, or personal memorabilia. She could not even find her three cats and two dogs. Later, they found two lone survivors—one cat and one dog—wandering aimlessly in the backyard.
Back then, Perez was so worried about being stoic for everyone else—her distraught mother, her young daughter, and her baby on the way—that she didn’t realize she needed help as well.
Two days after the fire, she and her mother went to the Red Cross headquarters to meet with caseworker, Lilliam Cruz-Rivera. Perez was skeptical and her nerves were frayed.
When Lilliam told her that she seemed upset, Perez bristled.
“I told her, ‘Listen lady, someone has to keep it together. If I fall apart, who’s going to get us through this?’”
Lilliam answered: “The Red Cross. That’s who.”
“You know what?” Perez said recently, “Lilliam was right. She was there for us whenever we needed something.”
Over the next few months, Perez scrambled to maintain her job, working the night shift, and returning to a tiny temporary apartment she shared with her mother, stepfather and daughter. She said that during this difficult period, being able to turn for help to somebody outside the family made everything more bearable.
“I didn’t have to struggle alone,” she said. “I knew the Red Cross had my back. If they hadn’t been there for us, I don’t know what we would have done.”
In her job as a court officer, Perez hears cases that illuminate the dark side of humanity. That’s why she is especially overwhelmed by the generosity and support that she has received from colleagues, her daughter’s school and even total strangers.
When Perez talks about this support, her voice cracks with emotion.
“I thought that the world was full of so many bad people. But after the fire, I saw how it’s also full of so many good people. When someone donated something after the fire, I would tell them that I didn’t know how to repay them. Then one day my boss finally said, ‘Angie, nobody wants you to repay them.’”
Today, Perez lives in a permanent home again in Bushwick, and looks after her daughter Hailey, eighth-month-old Peyton, and her mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis. Perez still struggles as a single working mother to make ends meet, but when she receives supplies that she doesn’t need from coworkers and other well-wishers, she makes sure to donate them to help those who do.
Perez is also in touch regularly with the Red Cross. In addition to sharing her story, she looks forward to becoming more involved with the organization once her daughters get older.
“The Red Cross gave us hope and peace of mind,” Perez said. “They have made that bad day, not so bad.”