LEWISTON, Maine — Before Monday’s fire was even out, friends, family and helpful strangers were calling for donations to help victims and arranging drop sites for clothes, toys, diapers and other items.
The call was quickly answered through Facebook, as people offered children’s clothes, furniture, bedding, strollers, car seats and bags filled with household goods.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Patricia Ramsey said. “These people have nothing.”
The fire that burned three apartment buildings on Blake, Bates and Pine streets left 75 people homeless, according to fire officials.
Ramsey’s sister, Jessica Ramsey-Pinkham, had lived in the Blake Street building for a couple of months, and has temporarily moved her family — including her five-day-old son — in with her grandmother in Poland.
Ramsey, her husband, Pat, and their friend, Christopher Noel — all of Lewiston — spent most of Tuesday picking up donations from people who responded to Facebook requests for help. Noel bought new items for Ramsey-Pinkham, but the group will accept used goods in new condition.
They’re hoping to help five families with the donations, and are willing to drive to pick up donations. By noon Tuesday, they had collected enough donations to fill three cars. And they’ve received offers from others to help store the materials before they can be dropped off at the Salvation Army.
Christen Akers of Lewiston is working with Patricia Ramsey, Tamara Gunnells and others to collect donations, but she said the group had no intention of distributing them to families. They will rely on the Salvation Army for distribution so they can avoid mistakenly handing out items to scammers pretending to be fire victims.
“There are over 35 families” left homeless by the fire, Akers said. “I can’t even imagine.”
She feels particularly bad for Ramsey-Pinkham, who brought her infant son home on Saturday “and this happened to her.”
She said people have been exceptionally generous, including a couple who dropped off $700 worth of brand-new merchandise Monday night after seeing Akers’ Facebook request for help.
“They went out of the way, at night” to buy the items, Akers said, and to make sure they would go to the children affected by the fire.
Jessica Golder, a Martel Elementary School parent who lives on Blake Street two blocks from Monday’s fire, is rallying other Martel parents to help.
Golder is sending home a notice to parents, asking them to bring clothes and cash donations to school Wednesday. She will deliver the donations to the Red Cross central location for drop-offs.
Parents are asked when dropping off clothes to have an inventory list so it’s clear what’s in there.
Golder said Tuesday that she walked to the fire scene with her children.
“My oldest son saw the smoke Monday,” she said. “We walked down and couldn’t believe it. We saw a woman with a three-week-old baby in her arms. Her apartment on Pine Street is gone. My son said, ‘Mama, this is a true tragedy.’ I’ve always raised my kids to be involved; you do things for others.”
Lewiston Middle School Principal Shawn Chabot said the school will hold a nonperishable food drive for fire victims May 1-10.
Anyone can drop off food at the middle school. The school will take the food to the local Red Cross to help feed those who lost their homes and belongings.
The drive is being organized by teacher Judy Howard, Chabot said. “The school is the reflection of the community. When something tragic happens, we all need to pitch in to help.”
The Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce’s annual fundraiser, Not Your Normal Formal, is getting in on the act by giving half of the proceeds from the remaining 40 event tickets to the Red Cross. The event is this Friday night at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston. Tickets are $50 each. Those interested can call Maureen at the Chamber at 783-2249.
The Greater Androscoggin Humane Society also stepped in to help, sending two employees to check the area for abandoned pets and for owners needing food or supplies for their pets. The society is taking requests for help with pet-related supplies to donate to fire victims.
The United Valley chapter of the American Red Cross is working on details to establish drop-off locations for donations. In the meantime, the group would appreciate funds to assist victims.
“In our last year in Androscoggin County, we helped 60 people,” branch manager Jennifer Gaylord said. “This year, so far, we’ve helped 183 and that doesn’t include this 75. We are stretched to the max at this point. I know that everybody is strapped, but financial donations are definitely needed.”
Eric Lynes, emergency services director for the United Valley chapter, estimated that the Red Cross helped 120-125 people on Tuesday related to the massive fire, including those who’d lost homes and those whose homes had been evacuated as a precaution.
The YWCA on East Avenue has been designated as the hub for physical donations, for those who drop off and for affected residents to pick up, but there are challenges.
“Many of our clients don’t have cars or storage,” Lynes said. “They don’t have a place to live.”
Financial donations may be best, for now, giving clients the money to spend as the needs arise.
Between 15 and 20 volunteers turned out Tuesday to work with the fire victims. Lynes said it was the largest structure fire the local Red Cross had responded to in memory.
Donations for fire victims
Clothes and light goods (dishes, pots and pans, flatware, small appliances) can be dropped off at the YWCA at 130 East Ave. in Lewiston during daytime operating hours.
Checks should be made payable to the American Red Cross and can be mailed or hand-delivered to the Red Cross Office at 1180 Lisbon St., Lewiston 04240, or can be made online at www.redcross.org/me.