Darneshia Williams got the call while she was grocery shopping Friday afternoon. At first, she didn’t believe the stranger on the other end.
“Your house is on fire,” the firefighter told her.
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Williams, 36, and her five children, 1, 3, 11, 13 and 17, lost everything in the fire at 9938 Old Lincoln Trail. The house has since been boarded up. Toys are strewn across the lawn and driveway. A half-burnt Christmas tree rests on its side on the porch.
Since Friday, she and her youngest four children have been staying in a room at the America’s Best Value Inn, provided by the Red Cross.
“When I got the call, I just thought, ‘Please don’t let this be true,’” Williams said, sitting on the edge of one of the two beds. “All I could do was break down in tears. I didn’t think it could happen to me.”
I asked them what they wanted for Christmas. All they said was they wanted a house to go home to.
Her two youngest, Kendrick and Kayden, were behind her on the bed. Kelsea, 11, and Kennedy, 13, played on their phones on the other side of the room. Packs of Ramen noodles, boxes of diapers and toys were stacked on the dresser and TV stand.
“It’s hard being in one room, trying to do everything,” she said. “I wanna cook. We’re eating microwaved food. It’s OK that my kids are eating, but they want what their mama cook.”
Williams said losing her home has been especially difficult because Christmas is coming up.
“I asked them what they wanted for Christmas. All they said was they wanted a house to go home to,” Williams said.
Despite everything, Williams said she’s trying her best to give her kids a good Christmas.
The Fairview Heights Fire Department is doing all they can to help make that happen.
Everyone’s hearts are bigger at Christmas.
Fire Chief Bryan Doyle
“She’s got a budget and only makes so much,” Fairview Heights Deputy Chief Bruce Green said. “We want to do as much as we can to get the word out to see if people can donate to them for a nice Christmas.”
The fire department is having a fundraiser for the family and encouraging people to drop off items at the station at 214 Ashland Drive. They also started a GoFundMe page, which had raised $345 as of Monday afternoon.
“We’re asking for anything to help since it is Christmas time,” Chief Bryan Doyle said. “Everyone’s hearts are bigger at Christmas.”
He added they believe the fire started in an electric outlet. Williams said it must have been the space heater she had in her home.
Doyle said that while they see many gut-wrenching fires, this one was particularly difficult because of the children involved.
Kelsea Williams, 11, said at first, she thought the fire trucks by her house were there for the apartments next door. When she realized it was her house that was on fire, she started running. A firefighter stopped her and police officers took her back to her school until her mom made it back to the house.
“Being on the scene there, the 11-year-old was walking home from school and she comes up on this fire and the fire department and everything at her house. No child should ever have to go through something like this by herself,” he said.
Williams said she’s been amazed at the generosity people have shown. Her support system has been the people in the community since she can’t stay with family.
We’re getting up someplace else. It’s not home.
“All this is just a wake up call to see things different,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many people come out and just help somebody that they don’t know.”
Williams said she’s trying to find another home in Fairview Heights because she doesn’t want to make her kids move back to East St. Louis, where they lived for 12 years.
“The first night we moved here, the kids woke up and said ‘Mama, we slept so good. We didn’t hear any gunshots or noise or none of that,’” Williams said, tears in her eyes.
She said she doesn’t want to take her kids away from their schools and friends, but it’s difficult to find a house she can afford.
For now, she and her family will continue staying at the hotel.
“We’re getting up someplace else,” she said, wiping her eyes. “It’s not home.”
At the fire department’s “Santa Day” event, where parents can bring their kids to see Santa Claus at the firehouse on Ashland Drive on Sunday, all donations will be given to the family.