Campaign to help Red Cross House keep helping families

Demetrius Crawley, Nicole Small, and their 6 children lived short-term at the Red Cross House since a June 8 fire on June 8 destroyed. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Demetrius Crawley, Nicole Small, and their 6 children lived short-term at the Red Cross House since a June 8 fire on June 8 destroyed. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: August 03, 2012

The Red Cross House in West Philadelphia has two storage rooms in its basement.

The first is subdivided into 26 sections, one for each of the families that could live in the facility at a time. Though the areas set aside for each family are spacious, most contain just a baby seat or a folded wheelchair or a trash bag full of clothing. Many have nothing at all. By the time people reach the Red Cross House, they have usually lost almost everything.

Next door is the second storage room. Inside are the items stockpiled by the Red Cross. Here, the cardboard boxes are piled up to the ceiling. Backpacks, diapers, dustpans, winter coats, and pairs of shoes of all sizes - an array of items a family might need after arriving at the Red Cross House with next to nothing.

Taking families from near-total loss to security in their own homes costs about $1 million a year for the Red Cross House, a short-term-stay facility similar to a hotel for victims of disasters, mostly house fires.

It is the only Red Cross facility of its kind in the country. Other Red Cross chapters offer hotel vouchers to fire victims, usually giving them three nights of free shelter after they lose their homes. Only in Philadelphia do families have a place to stay for a longer period - most live in the Red Cross House for 21 days - while they take advantage of a suite of services like fire-safety and financial-literacy classes, first-aid training, support groups, and case management to get them into their own homes again.

The Red Cross House last year served 328 families - a total of 983 people.

To continue that full-service operation for city residents and those in nearby suburbs, the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania has launched a $12 million fund-raising campaign to serve as a permanent endowment.

"We provide the supports that let them get back up," says Thomas Hays, chair of the organization's board. "Those are the things that we need the endowment for."

The Crawley-Small family has experienced that support firsthand since its house caught fire June 8 - the birthday of one of the six children, who range in age from 6 to 16.

Demetrius Crawley, 36, and Nicole Small, 33, recount the details of the catastrophe - how one of their children turned on the stove to make french fries and then left it unattended; how Crawley tried to extinguish the flames, but found that a blast from the hose only made the grease fire worse; how they expressed their relief to each other when their dog and their one-month-old kitten made it out unscathed.

The rescue workers' valiant efforts are the hardest part of the ordeal for Small to retell. "They brought two of those firefighters out of there on stretchers," she says, breaking down in tears as she recalls their injuries.

She has found some solace in discussing such painful memories with others at the Red Cross House. "It was like a comfort zone," she says of the facility, a sparkling-clean building decorated with World War II-era Red Cross advertisements and artwork painted by children who have stayed there. "OK, we know we don't have anything to worry about. We know what we're here for, and we know what we need to do."

With that sense of determination, Small and Crawley found a new home within a week of the fire - another Section 8-eligible house right around the corner from their old house in Lansdowne. The Red Cross extended their stay while they waited out inspection and signed a lease. Last week, they got the keys to their new home, and they moved Wednesday.

On Thursday they'll be reunited with their pets, who have stayed in pet hotels and foster homes through the Red Cross' "Red Paws" program.

When the Red Cross House opened nine years ago, the location was chosen because most Philadelphia fires took place within a one-mile radius of that part of West Philadelphia. Though fires have since spread out, the house's services have always been in high demand, Hays says: Philadelphia sees two fires every night that leave a family homeless.

Jubilantly walking through their new home last week - happily pointing out its hardwood floors and well-functioning air-conditioning unit - Crawley and Small were still mindful of the Red Cross' help.

"We are trying to find out how we can volunteer and how can we give back for all that they've given us," Small says.

They wouldn't be the first to leave the Red Cross House as beneficiaries and come back as volunteers. Naazir Muhammad benefited from Red Cross assistance after his family endured a house fire while he was in high school. He joined a Red Cross youth group at the time, then came back to the Red Cross House to volunteer. After three years as a volunteer, he recently took on a part-time paid position at the house, joining a staff of 11 full-time employees.

"This place is so personally linked with people's lives," he says. "It really makes you feel good to be able to give something back."

As the Red Cross embarks on its endowment fund-raising - so far it has raised $2 million - its leaders hope that other people agree with Muhammad's assessment. Speaking about the uniqueness of the Red Cross House, Hays says, "The people of Philadelphia don't realize how much it means to them."

Contact Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771


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