LAWRENCE — When Katti Matias’ apartment on East Haverhill Street went up in flames 12 years ago, she felt alone and forgotten because no one offered help to her and her children who were all under the age of six.
Things were different in 2012 when the two-story house she lived in on Lafayette Street was destroyed in a fire a few days before Christmas.
This time, Wayne Hayes and Juan “Manny” Gonzalez of Heal Lawrence approached Matias and asked what she needed. After renting an apartment on Andover Street, volunteers through Heal Lawrence donated living sets, bedding, television sets, linens and clothing.
“It restored my faith in humanity,” Matias said, holding back the tears. “I was just getting over from the last fire, so their help was a blessing for me. It felt like when a child is hurt and crying and his mother comes to comfort him.”
This is the mission of Heal Lawrence: to help those who need it most, but that is not how it started out. The group formed in 2011 as an offshoot of a political group that sought to unseat Mayor William Lantigua during three unsuccessful recall efforts.
While they believed recalling Lantigua was best for the city, the group realized that to truly heal Lawrence they had to bring people together. Under the leadership of Mount Verson Neighborhood Association President Wayne Hayes and veteran Lawrence Firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez, Heal Lawrence has a new goal of unifying Anglos and Hispanics, to be a clearinghouse of information, increase membership in the city’s neighborhood groups, and host drives to help out those who need it most in the city. Hayes said the group is now a nonprofit organization, not a political action committee.
“To me, Heal Lawrence means a fresh start,” said Gonzalez, who moved to Lawrence as a teenager. “People always see such a dark cloud over the city, but healing is what we need to make things get better.”
Hayes, who has lived in Lawrence since 2000, said Heal Lawrence’s mission is to educate residents about how to get and give help, empower residents to get on their feet, and to facilitate getting household items between donors and fire victims.
Their first project has been helping victims of recent fires on Lafayette, Park Street, South Broadway and Hancock Street. On the days he is not working and there is a fire, Gonzalez goes to the scene and talks to the fire victims. Otherwise, Hayes talks to them. After assessing the family’s priorities, they have a list on their website and residents donate the household items displaced families need.
“The idea is to help our brothers and sisters,” Hayes said. “Heal Lawrence is not going to fix everything, but it will give them the support to help themselves.”
Residents from Lawrence, Methuen, Pelham, N.H., Boston and as far away as Houston, Texas have made donations including food, clothing, furniture, kitchen appliances, dinnerware and draperies. After looking on the Internet, Nicole Silverwatch was touched by the story of the Matias family. They needed financial assistance to stay in the hotel extra days until they could find an apartment.
“Can you imagine being a family not knowing where they are going to sleep the next night? These are people who really needed help and we’re thankful we can help keep them warm for two nights and make those few days better for them,” said Silverwatch of Pelham, N.H.
Silverwatch said the name Heal Lawrence is powerful for the group and the goals they want to obtain.
“Healing is a strong word and it hits home with people. It doesn’t mean it’s broken, it means compassion and people who care and want to make it better,” Silverwatch said.
Gonzalez and Hayes said they want to help fire victims as a way to give back for what they have received. Gonzalez’ house was flooded in 2006 and fellow firefighters and friends helped fix it.
“I know what is like to be displaced out of your home,” Gonzalez said. “As a firefighter I see what people go through in a fire and their struggles and I want to help them.” Hayes’ wife Kathy lost her childhood home during a fire in Lowell.
Claudia Tejada is another client of Heal Lawrence.
When she saw everything she owned going up in flames in 2012, she started to cry and wondered how she was going to replace her furniture, clothing and other household items. Tejada said what wasn’t damaged by the fire was waterlogged by the blaze on Park Street.
“People were telling me that material things can be replaced, but I felt bad about losing it all after working so hard for it.” she said.
She said Heal Lawrence called several times to ask how the children were.
“I never thought strangers would care so much,” said Tejeda.
Toni Durfee-Ayala has also been a recipient of the generosity of Heal Lawrence and residents who donated to fire victims like herself. She lost her home on Berklee street in January and four months later is still living in a hotel.
After the fire, Hayes visited her and her family at the Andover hotel. He has also made follow-up calls to find out what she needs. Durfee-Ayala said she plans to rebuild her home.
Heal Lawrence has been working with Lazarus House and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Natalia Matias, 15, whose apartment on Lafayette Street burnt in December said Heal Lawrence has been a godsend to her and her family.
“I don’t miss anything I lost in the fire. I’m happy I have my family,” Natalia said. During the fire, her biggest concern was her grandmother, Elsa Susana, who was trapped in her second-floor apartment. Susana ultimately jumped to safety along with her sister.
“I thank God first, then Heal Lawrence who came to our rescue and have been very supportive,” Susana said. “They are a breath of hope in an emergency. I lived through despair and desperation and they came to our aid.”
Hayes said volunteering for Heal Lawrence is also blessing for him.
“All I have to do is ask who wants to help and they volunteer,” he said noting a neighbor who moved in just months ago helped him load furniture to the Matias’ home. “That’s the reward of helping others.”