'The community does care about the people we serve'

An outpouring of donations and support for House of Blessing following a fire that destroyed much of its supply of food, toys, and clothing at the beginning of December has allowed the Stratford charity to meet the needs of its clients both over the Christmas season and into the new year.

Theresa McMurray, executive director of House of Blessing in Stratford, stands next to the mountain of food donated by individuals, businesses, and organizations after the charity's food supply was largely destroyed by smoke from a small kitchen fire on Dec. 3. (Galen Simmons/The Beacon Herald)

Share Adjust Comment Print

If there was one good thing to come out of the Dec. 3 kitchen fire that destroyed food, toy, and clothing donations at House of Blessing in Stratford, it was the outpouring of support the charity and its clients received from individuals, organizations, and businesses throughout the city and surrounding area.

“The community does care about the people we serve,” House of Blessing executive director Theresa McMurrary said Monday afternoon in the midst of sorting and organizing the myriad donations that came in over December.

Though the fire was small, the smoke it produced left all food that wasn’t canned inedible and destroyed the clothing and toys that had been collecting in House of Blessing’s storage rooms prior to the start of its Christmas Toy program. The fire even took House of Blessing’s well-used walk-in freezer out of commission.

It was something that House of Blessing staff and volunteers had never dealt with before, and it happened during one of the busiest seasons of the year for donations.

“The (food) in our storeroom was getting depleted — that’s the room we kind of stock everything and we kind of have to rotate it constantly because in our food bank, you can fill the shelves and it’s gone in a day… Christmas is always a time that people give, and they give very generously, and that’s what always gets us through to the next food drive. So when we lost everything that basically was not in a can, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ everything just stopped. We couldn’t receive and we couldn’t restock because we couldn’t house anything. Everything down there was contaminated.”

And on the same day as the fire, House of Blessing launched its Christmas Toy Program for the season, which is bolstered every year by donations that come in during the off season as well as any toys left over from last year’s program. With all of those toys destroyed — roughly 4,000 in total — McMurray and her staff were faced with the stressful prospect of running the program with December donations alone.

But word of the fire and the damage it caused quickly spread through the media, social media, and by word of mouth. Once House of Blessing moved into its temporary drop-off, pick-up, and storage location at 753 Ontario St. — offered by Pinnacle Storage and Services Ltd. — the donations of not only food, toys, and clothing, but also volunteer hours, resources such as vehicles and temporary cooler space, and money began to flow in.

“The support was overwhelming. It felt like we were being hugged by the community,” McMurray said. “Immediately emails and phone calls poured in with words of encouragement and offers of help. Many businesses offered discounts or gift certificates in exchange for donating items. Others offered to be collection sites and delivery drivers. Many individuals stepped up with donations to help us fill the gaps in our programs as a result of the fire.”

Though staff and volunteers are still sifting through and organizing the mountain of food that was donated, McMurray said they had more than enough food and toys to serve their clients over the holidays. Based on her initial impression of what was donated, McMurray estimates House of Blessing received 10 times its normal December tally.

“We really want everyone to know how much we appreciate the outpouring of support. It means so much, not only to us and the work we do in our community, but even more so to the people who use our services in their time of need,” McMurray said. “These individuals and families have also been wrapped in a huge hug. Now they truly know how much our community cares.

“When the organization they go to for help also needed help, everyone stepped forward to make sure those we serve still had food and still had Christmas. Words can’t fully express our gratitude.”

Though the food bank has been back up and running since shortly after the fire and many of the donated toys have found new homes with area families, McMurray said her volunteers have yet to get to the massive pile of clothing donations. While House of Blessing can help people who are in dire need of winter clothing, she said the rest of the clothing at House of Blessing likely won’t be ready for clients until the end of January.