CWS Kits help survivors of catastrophic fire in Chicago

CWSKit Stories

Can a CWS Kit really make a difference in the wake of an overwhelming loss?

Washitha Hunter, survivor of a recent catastrophic fire in her Chicago apartment complex, answered that question with a resounding “Yes!”

Hunter, her husband, Anthony Barr, their two teen-aged children and 10-month-old grandson made it out of their apartment unharmed, but four neighbor children perished in the September blaze.

Barr was the first in the household to see the flames shooting out of neighbors’ second and third floor windows.

“The fire was roaring real hard,” said Barr, who was watching some late-night television when his attention was drawn to the front window. “I saw a woman and a man jump out of their window.”

He ran to wake up his wife and children. They grabbed their daughter’s 10-month-old son and their keys and fled out their back door.

They joined their neighbors a safe distance from the burning building. The adults who jumped suffered broken bones and were taken away by ambulance. The Red Cross arrived with coffee and blankets.

“We were out all night,” Barr said.

Once the flames were extinguished, most residents were allowed a brief time to retrieve belongings from their apartments.

“We had more smoke damage than anything,” Barr said. “When they let us back in they gave us three hours to move everything – without any truck or car.” The family retrieved some clothes and whatever documents they could and moved in temporarily with friends in another part of Chicago.

“Then the apartments were supposed to be locked up and boarded up to keep our things safe,” Hunter said. “Instead, the people doing the boarding up went into our apartments and stole everything.”

In all, 50 families were displaced, 19 of them – including the Hunter-Barrs – from apartments subsequently judged uninhabitable.

A Chicago area disaster response coalition mobilized to assist survivors of the fire. The Community Organizations that Assist in Disasters (or “COAD”) of Northeast Illinois represents more than 30 organizations in six counties.

Charlotte Hazel chairs the coalition, and was named lead manager for the fire response. She put out a call to partners for material assistance. Church World Service, a member of the coalition, responded immediately to the group’s request for 30 CWS School Kits and 30 CWS Baby Care Kits – assembled and contributed by U.S. churches – for distribution at one in a series of resource fairs for affected families.

“We can’t thank you enough for your contribution” for families displaced in the fire, Hazel’s Red Cross and COAD colleague Patricia Holt wrote CWS. “Eighteen families were helped by your generosity, and they expressed their gratitude for the baby and school supply kits! Your charitable donations were well received and appreciated.”

“Church World Service is a partner that does not hesitate,” Hazel said. “When we put a call out and CWS sees a need it can meet, CWS says, ‘Consider it done!’ and I can check that need off my list. The fire survivors were overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from CWS and other partners.”

Hunter picked up a CWS Baby Care Kit for grandson Jordan and two CWS School Kits for the teens.

“The supplies meant a lot, because we didn’t have a lot!” she said. “It makes a difference, especially when you don’t have it!” Thanks to the help from CWS and the children’s schools, “we haven’t had to get anything for school. The kids are able to do what they need to do in school.”

Hunter took two weeks off from her job as a housekeeper at Rush University, but is back to work now. Barr continues his work in light construction. Hunter said the American Red Cross is helping connect the family to recovery services.

As she and her family work to put their lives back together, “it’s our children and grandson who are getting me through this,” Hunter said. “I have to keep it together for them. I have to do what I need to do for my kids.”