The Ayala family: Search for a home begins
EDITOR’S NOTE: These two stories begin an occasional Eagle-Tribune series following two families that lost their homes in the seven-alarm blaze that consumed almost an entire city block early last Monday. More than a dozen buildings on Parker, Market and Springfield streets were either damaged or completely destroyed.
By Drake Lucas
Rest and relaxation, not searching for a place to live, was what Jannette Ayala had planned for her fourth month of pregnancy. The tornado of fire that destroyed the apartment where the 19-year-old pregnant mother, her two children and boyfriend lived has left her no choice.
Ayala , along with about 200 other people, were forced from their homes in the bitter cold early morning hours as the fire ravaged a full city block in Lawrence. She and boyfriend Luis Taveres grabbed their two children, Naima, 1, and Jeremiah, 2, who were clothed only in diapers and shirts.
They boarded a bus to a temporary shelter for a night and for the rest of the week have been staying in a hotel room provided by the Red Cross.
But if they don’t find other accommodations by Tuesday, Ayala doesn’t know where she and her family will stay.
“What’s going to happen?” she asked. “Every day I cry.”
At her doctor’s appointment on Thursday, Ayala learned she is having twins, which added to the stress of how she and Taveres can provide for their growing family, she said.
The doctors told her she should be resting so she doesn’t end up in the hospital. Her back pains are worse than they should be. But she is running after an active 2-year-old and carrying around a 1-year-old as she tries to find a way to look for apartments and use a prepaid credit card from the Red Cross to buy the clothes they need.
“This is very stressful,” she said.
She doesn’t feel like eating, she said. She isn’t sleeping well. And while Taveres and she each looked at two apartments, they all were too expensive and situated on the third floor — meaning there are too many stairs for her to climb, especially once the twins are born.
Ayala was tired and discouraged sitting in the hotel Friday night. It’s not the first time she has found herself with nowhere to go. When she was 12 years old, she said, her mom dropped her off at a police station with her brother and didn’t take care of them again for three years.
During that time, Ayala stayed with foster parents Sammy and Mily Reyes. After she moved out, she lost contact with them, but the family found her again after the fire.
Mily Reyes said a friend recognized Ayala from a picture in the paper and showed it to her the day after the fire. Mily Reyes called her husband immediately, so they could go find Ayala at the shelter at Lawrence East School.
“She was happy to see us,” Sammy Reyes said. He described her as tough when she was younger, but a nice kid.
Sammy and Mily Reyes took turns on their days off this week taking Ayala to see apartments and get clothes.
“They know that when I am stressed out, I give up,” Ayala said. “They came to help.”
Taveres’ mother and uncle also took the family to look at apartments. And since Taveres was laid off from his job, he’s looking for work as well as a place to live.
For now, though, he is mostly just trying to look after Ayala.
In their hotel room are all their possessions: a pile of clothes and a few donated toys. Representatives from the charitable organization Lazarus House knocked on their room Friday night to drop off shampoo, toiletries and a few more toys. Jeremiah wanted to open the packages right away because it was something new for him to do.
The phone rang at the hotel as someone else called about child care and a possible lead for an apartment.
Ayala has been given food stamps, but she shrugs her shoulders. Where will they put all the food? She hears people are donating clothing and furniture and other items for fire victims, but she hasn’t seen them and doesn’t know where she would put them if she did.
She said people from housing organizations have told her there is a waiting list, even for people in an emergency situation like hers.
Jamie Devlin, executive director for Red Cross, said the families will not be turned out of the hotel with nowhere to stay. He said the Red Cross will help them find a place if they have yet to find an apartment.
But Ayala doesn’t know where that will be. She wants her kids to be safe. She wants a home with at least two big bedrooms for her family.
“I want an apartment so my kids can be comfortable, so they don’t keep looking at me and saying, ‘Why are we here?”
The Reyes family: Hard work on Habitat house laid waste by flames
By Courtney Paquette
LAWRENCE — Sixteen-year-old Felix Reyes Jr. flipped on the television early Monday morning and saw his house burning down.
He, his mother and father, two brothers and one sister were supposed to move into it in a few days. All the boxes for the move were stacked in the kitchen of their tiny apartment, each labeled in black marker — “family videos,” “plates,” “books.” Some had been marked with smiley faces, too.
Felix woke up his mother, Ruthie, and led her to the TV. That was how she found out the home she and her husband had dreamed of for 17 years, and helped build for three, was gone.
Like dozens of families, the Reyeses lost their house to the fast-moving fire that claimed 26 homes Monday. They were one of two families ready to move into the Habitat for Humanity Market Common project.
The Reyeses would live in a single-family unit. Next door to them was a nearly complete duplex with one resident family identified and a second unit waiting for occupants. Two more duplexes far from completion could have housed four additional families, but were also destroyed in the blaze.
“I hope time will show me the answer why this happened,” said Ruthie Reyes, a petite 36-year-old. “You don’t even know. It was so special for (Felix). But I told him, ‘Have faith. God will provide a home for us.’ “
In the 17 years since she and her husband, Felix, moved from the Dominican Republic to Lawrence, the family of six has relocated six times. Three of the moves were necessary because their landlords sold the building without notice.
In just a few more days, they thought they finally would be settled. Their children would have a yard to play in. They could wash their clothes at home, rather than paying $20 a week at the laundry. Reyes and her husband; their sons, Felix Jr., Israel, 15, and Dan, 12; and their daughter, Nathalie, 11, would finally feel like they were part of a neighborhood.
“Our goal was to have a house so our kids wouldn’t be moving from place to place — where no one can tell us we have to move,” Reyes said. “I came from a poor family. But I grew up feeling secure. I grew up happy and want my kids to have that feeling.”
For three years, the family has been living on Tenney Street in a three-bedroom apartment, its living room converted into a fourth bedroom. The home is tidy but so cramped that two people barely fit in the kitchen at the same time.
Reyes works full time across the street at Arlington Elementary School, where she’s an assistant teacher. She goes to night school once a week at Northern Essex Community College, working toward a degree in elementary education.
She remembers hearing about Habitat for Humanity nine years ago, but said she thought a bunch of volunteers coming together to build a house for strangers sounded too good to be true.
“That must be something tricky,” she said she suspected at the time.
Eventually her sister-in-law convinced her to apply. From hundreds of families, the Reyeses were chosen to move into a property at 382 Market St.
That was three years ago.
Every Saturday since, Reyes and her husband helped volunteers build that home. Future residents are required to put in 500 hours of work, though she estimates they worked more than 700 hours. She stopped counting months ago.
Volunteers work both Thursdays and Saturdays, and she remembers marveling as the place came together. Every week when she arrived, something new was up, she said. A sink. A shower. A wall. Windows.
“I loved the windows,” she said, drawing a frame in the air with her hands. “I could wash my dishes and look outside.”
Last weekend, her four brothers and two sisters came up from the Dominican Republic and she showed them the house. It had four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a closet for blankets, a hallway, a kitchen, and something they don’t have now — a living room, a place to gather together.
“We actually did it,” she said.
The fire took it all away.
“It breaks your heart when you know that they were so close,” said Jodi Weeks, director of resource development for the Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity.
On Tuesday, Reyes went over to see what the fire did to her home.
“Oh my God. It was like a picture from those horror movies,” she said. “I thought I was gonna collapse.”
Almost in the same breath, she said, “I thank God my kids were not there. We lost something special, but at least no one got hurt. It’s not a material thing. It’s more the feeling. The love people put into the house. People I didn’t even know their names.”
Those at Habitat plan to rebuild the homes, but it could take up to two years.
In the meantime, they’re hoping to move the Reyes family and the Mbiyes, the family of eight that was to move into the duplex next door, into a two-family home under construction on Gale Street. But that’s still six months away from completion, and needs $40,000 worth of work — including flooring and a kitchen.
They’re hoping volunteers will step forward who can work overtime so it can be finished in a couple of months. “We want to give them their dream back, but it’s going to take awhile,” Weeks said.
That was starting to become clear to Reyes a few days ago, as she stared at a mountain of boxes in her kitchen.
“I don’t know — maybe I should unpack,” she said. “It won’t be happy. Usually, when you unpack, it’s because you move to a new home. But God will find something for us.”
The Ayala family: Search for a home begins
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