Family appeals for donations for themselves and neighbors after fire destroys homes

Ashley Sellars cried as she stood outside her grandmother’s Austin home and watched 40 years of memories go up in flames.

The fire started in an apartment building down the block Dec. 3 and spread to two other houses. As firefighters rushed around her, Sellars thought about all the family dinners her grandmother had hosted every Sunday.

By the time the fire was out, the brick home Sellars knew as the family fortress was gutted. All their belongings were gone.

Sellars’ 90-year-old grandmother, known in the neighborhood as Mrs. Bailey, bought the building with her late husband. As devastating as the fire was, Sellars said her grandmother embraced her family and assured them that things would be alright.

“She told me she hasn’t cried yet and I’m trying to follow her lead, but it isn’t easy,” Sellars said this week.

While searching for anything that was salvageable, Sellars said she saw her next-door neighbor sifting through ashes of her home. “She was outside crying and rummaging through her baby’s burned items,” Sellars said.

The baby is about 6 months old, and the neighbor also has a 6-year-old daughter, Sellars said.

She said she and her family decided to appeal for help for her as well. They have started a GoFundMe page asking for cash donations and contributions of shoes, clothes and whatever else people might need to put their lives back together.

“We are asking not only for ourselves but also for the occupants of the house next door,” the Sellars family says on the GoFundMe page. “We need any donations.”

For now, the displaced family is being given temporary shelter with the help of the American Red Cross.  “The Red Cross came and after I talked to one of their workers I found out that this happens to several people during this time of year,” Sellars said.

She said the ordeal has been especially tough for her 36-year-old brother Brandon who has autism.  “Autistic people need consistency,” Sellars said. “Things have to be in the same place and you can’t change their routine suddenly. This is really difficult for him.”

Catherine Rabenstine, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Chicago and Northern Illinois, said a fire in the home is the biggest threat to families. The agency responds to three to four fires a daily throughout the year, she said.

In Chicago and northern Illinois, the Red Cross has responded to about 69 home fires so far during the month of December, Rabenstine said.

Most home fires can be prevented with regular upkeep and use of smoke alarms, she said.

In the the case of the fire that destroyed the Bailey home, Fire Department officials said the extra-alarm fire was being investigated as possible arson.

Neighbors have speculated the fire may have been set by a squatter in the apartment building.  Community members had been trying to get it boarded up because squatters had been living there for the past couple of years, neighbors said.

On the GoFundMe page, the Sellars family asks for donations of shoes, coats and winter accessories and said they can be dropped off at the following locations:

— First Corinthian Baptist, 922 South Keeler Ave.

— Chicago International Christen Church, 211 South Laflin St.

— Clara’s House, 650 W. 63rd St.

— Whitney Young High School, 211 S. Laflin St.

“There’s always a blessing in the storm,” Sellars said. “I’m glad everyone made it through unharmed. Possessions can be replaced but life can’t.”