By GENNA NEWMAN FREED
The Stevers were well on their way toward rebuilding their lives and their burned-out home when a snowstorm awakened Emily Stevers to the struggles of families like hers.
“The first snowfall, the kids wanted to go out to play and I said sure, but they didn’t have any snow clothes” after their house fire, she said.
“We had phenomenal donations from the community, but the fire was in June and no one was thinking snowpants in June. So, we went out and bought them. And I was thinking about the people that can’t afford to buy them. What do they do? Who helps them?” she said.
So, she started making small donations, like gift cards and food cards, to other fire victims. She said gift cards had helped her family in the aftermath of the fire at their one-and-a-half story Findlay home at 1015 W. Bigelow Ave.
Her small donations turned into larger donations, which turned into collecting items that fire victims might need. Then the donations and collecting turned into the Ohio Fire Victims Support Group.
“So that’s how it happened,” Emily said. “And holy moly, has it been busy.”
Emily and Chad Stevers remember June 10, 2013, started out as a typical Monday. They had three children, ages 7 to 17, to get off to school. Then they had to go to work, Chad to Gilbane Building Co. and Emily to EMS Construction Cleaning.
Only a few hours later, the Stevers got the call.
“We came home and didn’t think it was anything too bad from the outside, but the inside was gone, so we had to start over,” Emily said.
Firefighters said the blaze started in the kitchen and estimated damage at $180,000.
Ten months later, Emily and her husband are still wading through insurance paperwork as their burned house is being rebuilt. While doing that, they are helping others who have lost their homes to fire.
Emily and her support group have helped 43 fire victims, most of them since January, when Emily created a Facebook page, which had 534 members as of Thursday.
There, victims can post information about their loss and specific needs, and friends and family can alert Emily and other members of the support group.
The group accepts donations of money and any gently-used household items. Emily can be contacted at 419-346-2776.
The Stevers are renting a house near their former home, which is being rebuilt. The couple has a 1,152-square-foot detached garage and a loft full of donated furniture, clothes and other goods for fire victims.
To keep up with all the donations, the Stevers also rent a storage garage.
“The reason furniture and stuff is important is because, after a fire, you stay somewhere temporarily,” Emily said. “When you go … into an apartment or wherever, you need stuff but you don’t want to buy it. So, what I do is provide beds and dressers and clothes and bowls and plates and cups.
“I try to deliver to everybody because they’ve got enough on their plate. They don’t want to have to come to my house and pick stuff up. But they are able to come here and ‘shop’ and pick out what they need.”
Emily said she prays every day for a building or storage unit of some sort to have more space to store and organize donations, as well as a box truck for delivery and pickup.
“It’s not what most people pray for, but it would make it so much easier,” she said.
But the goal of the Fire Victims Support Group is more than just the donations.
“My goal is to keep it personal and help people for the first year after their fire,” Emily said.
“We’re still doing our insurance paperwork 10 months out. When victims are stressed out, emotionally drained, up to their eyebrows in paperwork, I want them to call me at 10 o’clock at night if they have a question or email me. I don’t want them to have to deal with, you know, Monday-through-Friday office hours.”
After their fire, the Stevers had a number of “bad experiences” with companies she likened to ambulance chasers.
Emily said it meant added stress and “a lot of emotional turmoil that I think we didn’t need to go through.”
“We learned so much and there’s no playbook,” Emily said.
As a result, “I never say no to anybody. Even if they have insurance, I go to their house and I help them count their inventory. Because why pay a company if we can do it? I help them haul their stuff out before they (demolish).
“We paid for a week’s stay for somebody at a hotel because their initial help was getting cut off and they had nowhere to go. My donors and myself raised money to pay for them for another week.
“I can help (victims) with insurance, without insurance,” she said.
The support group is holding a fundraiser at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Liberty-Benton Middle School gymnasium.
There will be food, games, door prizes, face painting, shopping and a quarter auction with prizes for men, women and children. All the proceeds will go to Christy and Matt Cramner and the Fire Victims Support Group.
The Cramners are Liberty-Benton employees, Christy a seventh-grade math teacher and Matt the transportation supervisor. They and their two children lost their home to a fire on Feb. 2.
“Our home was unlivable and all but a handful of the contents of our house were deemed a loss,” Christy Cramner said.
She said her family and friends were able to provide immediate necessities for the family like food, clothing and shelter.
But about four hours after the fire, she got a call from Emily.
“I knew of her because I taught her daughter at L-B,” Cramner said. “But I did not have a relationship farther than teacher/mother with her, so I was quite surprised when I got a call from her.”
Cramner said donations began arriving the night of the fire, thanks to Emily. Cramner announced the family’s needs on the group’s Facebook page, everything from toiletries to furniture. Emily also oversaw the creation of a funding website that raised more than $3,000 for the Cramners.
“Emily was a wealth of information and knowledge for us,” Cramner said. “Being a fire victim herself, her firsthand experience was some of the most valuable advice we could have received. Emily’s presence in our lives through our fire has been an incredible blessing.
“Her organization and funneling of donations for us, both material and financial, allowed our family to transition very smoothly and quickly from having absolutely nothing to have a fairly normal, comfortable living situation within four days of the fire,” she said.
“It is unbelievable to me how God’s goodness through Emily’s charity, and the generosity of so many wonderful people around us, enable us to go from having almost nothing to having our immediate needs met so quickly and seamlessly.”
The support group has gained popularity mainly by word of mouth and Facebook. Donations have been plentiful, though more help is always needed, Emily said.
Emily said some donations have been made to help grow the group, such as literature, a website and business cards.
“The community has been amazing despite that we’re not a nonprofit and you can’t write off donations,” Emily said.
Becoming a nonprofit has been something the Stevers have been wrestling with. The plus side is it would allow them to apply for grants for getting storage space and more aid. The downside, they said, is it would turn the support group into a business, taking away from the personal side of things.
Still, the group already has sponsors. ADD Designs donates decorating to any victims who would like it. Plato’s Closet and Once Upon a Child donate gift cards to each child who is a fire victim. Inman’s Garage Doors, Vorst Cabinets and Builders, and Jolliff Cleaning Services are also helping.
The group recently gained a group of board members. Lynn Zona of Chase Bank is treasurer; Chad Stevers is vice president; Erica Rudd, a first-grade teacher from Fremont, is secretary; Jill Rowe, mother of Matt Cramner, and Emily are both members.
The support group can always use “more support, anything gently used,” Emily said. Her own family lost “16 years worth of stuff” in their fire.
“You can’t possibly put a price on that or replace that. We had just redone the house, just got finished and there’s just no way we could pay to replace our belongings and our loss,” Emily said.
“Even if you think you have a ton of insurance money, all the stuff adds up. There’s just so much more than anybody can imagine. So for me to go in and do someone’s inventory and save them $5,000, that’s a lot.”
Her efforts aren’t going unnoticed.
“Knowing that Emily is just a phone call away and that her expertise and helpful nature can help us get through a lot of tough situations, whether it be needing clothes for the kids when the seasons change or dealing with insurance company questions,” Cramner said. “The Fire Victims Support Group is an amazing charity that brings a much-needed light and helping hand to guide families through a very traumatic experience.
“I love Emily’s drive,” Cramner said. “She says something to the effect of, ‘No one was here to walk me through this tough experience full of unknowns and hardships, so I’m going to be there to walk other people through it with what I have learned and experienced,’ and that’s exactly what she does.”
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