Recovering from a pre-Christmas fire that destroyed her home initially seemed to be a daunting task, but Sarah Perez Hernandez realized she could manage after meeting with American Red Cross Heart of Missouri Chapter volunteers.
“They (Red Cross volunteers) were the first ones there on site to help me,” Hernandez said during a recent interview. “When everyone else was saying ‘I’m sorry that sucks for you’ you guys said ‘Let’s get you going. Let’s get you better. ‘”
Hernandez was working the evening shift Dec. 16 at her part-time job in the Columbia Mall when the fire started late in the afternoon at her mobile home in Jefferson City’s Apache Manor. She didn’t know her home had burned until she checked her cell phone later that evening. That’s when she saw a missed call “from a bunch of zeroes.”
“I thought that can’t be good,” said Hernandez, who imagined it might be about one of her children.
She returned the call, which was from the Jefferson City Police Department, and learned the situation did not involve her children, but that her home burned. She still didn’t know the extent of the damage, but she knew no one was hurt because her two children, Enrique, 4, and Aidan, 8, were at their sitters, while her boyfriend, Raul, also was at work.
Hernandez, who recently bought the home, got permission from her boss to leave work earlier than expected and picked up Raul. The two took a stressful 45-minute trip back to Jefferson City.
“I was trying to imagine – was it a kitchen fire, was it a small fire? Did they catch it in time,” she said. “I know it’s a trailer. Did it blow up? Is it completely gone?”
She got her answer about 10 p.m. when she saw what was left of her home.
“When I got there no one was there,” she said. “I walked in by myself and it was just reeking of smoke and it was all completely and totally black. Walls were missing. Everything was just burnt. The refrigerator melted. It was bad. Everything was gone.”
She and Raul went to the police department to get some information about the fire, but were referred to the sheriff’s office where they learned it appeared the fire started in the water heater.
Hernandez was dazed by the situation, but followed through on a suggestion to call the Red Cross.
Two Red Cross volunteers met with her within the hour, determined the family’s needs and provided them with comfort kits, which contain personal hygiene items, referrals, and a preloaded client assistance card. The card had money to buy goods to meet her family’s immediate emergency needs, including two nights in a local hotel.
“I didn’t have any idea they would come out that quick or give me that much. I had no expectations,” she said. “I was just referred and I used it because I had no other resources. You guys just came out there and gave us everything right then and there. I can’t explain it. I was emotionless. Someone tells you everything is burned down. You go and see it and right away people are they to say ‘Here, let me help you out.’
Her children stayed with relatives while Hernandez was in the hotel wondering what the immediate future held.
“I just kind of sat there thinking what are we going to do now?” she said. “Eventually the money is going to run out, the hotel is going to run out. Then what do we do? Then Facebook just went ballistic.”
With her story on social media, donations of money, gifts and clothes came in from individuals, businesses and civic organizations. The day after she had to leave the hotel, Hernandez got a new apartment in Columbia and a few days before Christmas she and her children reunited.
“It’s like someone comes up and tells you your house burned down and the next day it’s better. It’s like we got you everything you needed - Merry Christmas,” she said. “It hasn’t quite hit me yet. I don’t really know how to deal with that. My kids are ecstatic. They are happy.”
She even got a new job with the state in the Truman Building.
“If I hadn’t called the Red Cross, I’d probably be in my car,” Hernandez said. “If I hadn’t called the Red Cross or gone on Facebook stating my situation, I’d still probably be looking for a place and trying to build up the money to get a place. Even if I had a place, it wouldn’t have anything in it – maybe a couple of mattresses. There would not have been a Christmas. The kids would probably still be with family.”
In the end, the tragedy turned into a triumph.
“I got a full-time job instead of a part-time job and a bigger and nicer house in a nicer area and a lot of nicer things,” she said. “It’s like one bad incident turned into good luck. People have said I should look on this as a blessing. Maybe, but it’s not something I want to go through again.”