By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — Three families who lost all their possessions in fires on Monmouth Street and Ferry Avenue in December have found new apartments and are starting to rebuild their lives thanks to the generous support they’ve received from people throughout the area.
Many individuals and community organizations have come forward, with everything from clothes to children’s toys, to help the families regain some of what they lost.
“This tragedy has opened my eyes, to how many people who have stopped what they’re doing to give us a helping hand. It’s amazing,” said Stephanie Santos, who lived in the multi-family home with her husband and three children.
“People’s generosity has been unbelievable,” agreed Nicauris Cruz, who had only been living in her apartment with her three children for five months when the fire broke out at 52 Monmouth St.
That day, Cruz was working at Sunoco in Andover when she noticed she had two missed calls on her cell phone from the Lawrence Police Department. When she called back, they told her house was on fire.
As she drove into Lawrence from Andover, she saw the smoke billowing and could not believe her eyes.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” she said of the 3-alarm fire at the multi-family house. “I cried when I saw the house of my dreams, and all the hard work I put into it, go up in flames. It was sad, going from having so much to having nothing.”
All the family’s furniture, clothing and Christmas presents went up in flames, as did many of her neighbors.
“I went back trying to find the photos, but I didn’t find anything. I was heartbroken because I lost all those memories,” said Cruz who had more than a dozen albums filled with pictures of her three children, certificates and awards they had won at their schools — Central Catholic, Greater Lawrence Technical School and Bellesini Academy.
Through private donations from Heal Lawrence, Central Catholic, Bellesini Academy, the Student Council at Lawrence High, the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, Mt. Vernon Garden Club, the Top Notch program, employees at Chili’s Restaurant in Andover and others, Cruz’s family and the others were put up in hotel rooms until they could find a place to stay.
“From this bad experience, I learned that when you need it the most, people are willing and want to help,” Cruz said.
She said a stranger visited her and showed Cruz photographs of his family and invited her and her children to spend Christmas with them.
Another person she did not know came on a bitterly cold day with a fruit basket and $20.
“That got me thinking, who would do that for someone they don’t know instead of staying cuddled up in their warm home?”
She and the others have found a lot of people will go out of their way to help those in need. Most recently, the three families received a boost from the Rotary Club of Lawrence. The group collected $1,500 and split it among the three families to help them settle into their new homes.
The donation came after Wayne Hayes and firefighter Juan “Manny” Gonzalez spoke to the group about their own organization, Heal Lawrence — a nonprofit they started to help victims of fires and other tragedies.
“This is what Healing Lawrence is about, partnership,” Hayes said. “I’m honored that the Rotary Club is supporting us.”
Their presentation struck a chord with many, especially Rotarian Robert Autieri.
When he heard about the fire, Autieri wanted to help for personal reasons. He grew up two houses down from the scene of the Monmouth Street fire.
“It was a little emotional for me. It was because of people who helped me growing up, that I am who I am today,” said Autieri, an attorney for 30 years.