Fires can be devastating to families, even when damage is limited to possessions.
And when a resident can’t escape, especially a child, the community can be stunned, saddened, and often especially inspired to help.
A few local organizations are supporting fire victims or first responders through some of their darkest days after those tragedies and trying to prevent future devastation.
Wayne County’s American Red Cross chapter, led by volunteer Dana Mollenkopf, has distributed more than $35,000 in funds directly to the county’s fire victims since December 2022.
Red Cross does not act as a clearinghouse to gather items or money from the public to redistribute to a particular fire victim. That’s where friends, families, churches or other organizations often assist by starting online fundraisers or collecting items.
For instance, Centerville Christian Church is collecting items for the family that lost a young child in the Jan. 28 fire on South Centerville Road.
Through Red Cross, Mollenkopf and his team (which recently has grown to six active volunteers) has overseen responses to 30 local fires in those 14 months.
Some of the incidents included multiple families, such as motel fires. Thus, a total of 147 individuals were helped through 47 cases.
The Red Cross chapter is primarily focused on providing assistance in Wayne County, but it’s occasionally asked to help in communities such as Winchester and Union City when needed.
Red Cross volunteers meet quickly with fire victims to provide initial financial assistance for immediate needs based on the number of people in the family. That aid is given regardless of whether they have insurance. Recipients can determine the best uses for those funds, although limitations prevent purchases of alcohol, tobacco or other items.
When there’s a fatality, Red Cross gives additional funds to the family.
Mollenkopf said to qualify for aid, a damage assessment must be conducted on the home, and it must have been destroyed, suffered major damage or be uninhabitable for at least 48 hours.
Later, some families qualify for Red Cross’ supplemental assistance to make repairs to their residence or a deposit for a new place to live.
Red Cross follows fire victims for 28 days and helps connect them with other community resources.
Free smoke detectors
In addition to responding to tragedies after they occur, Red Cross aims to prevent loss of life and property damage through installation of free smoke detectors. So far, Mollenkopf said the chapter has installed 1,326 alarms in 513 local homes.
There are no income guidelines — the only requirement to request alarms is that they’re needed. Money might be tight, or a resident can’t install them because of health challenges.
These smoke alarms have 10-year batteries, which is the alarms’ recommended life span.
Mollenkopf said he’s learned that some locally installed Red Cross smoke detectors have alerted residents to fires.
Many Wayne County volunteer fire departments also install smoke alarms at no charge, so residents are encouraged to contact their local department for availability before Red Cross.
Separate from his Red Cross efforts, Mollenkopf helps lead a mission to distribute donated items to those in need through Central United Methodist Church in Richmond.
Recipients must be referred from agencies such as Communities in Schools, Department of Child Services, mental health organizations, Red Cross, or shelters including Refuge of Hope and Hope House.
The program began nearly four years ago and has received 133 referrals. Clothing, shoes, coats, baby gear, kitchen and household items, and small furniture are available from the donation room.
Mollenkopf said by using the church collection, fire victims can stretch their Red Cross financial assistance to cover various needs. He has found that many fire victims lack insurance.
Area residents can also support a regional organization that helps local first responders cope with recent or previous traumatic experiences.
The East Central Indiana Critical Incident Stress Management (ECI-CISM) organization serves Wayne, Fayette, Henry, Randolph, Rush, Union and Delaware counties.
Funds donated to that organization, which is overseen by Rush Memorial Hospital Foundation, provide first responders with needed mental health care and support through the ECI-CISM team.
For instance, all of Centerville Fire/EMS responders on scene at the Jan. 28 fatal fire were to gather for an ECI-CISM debriefing.
First responders — or those who know of someone who could benefit from its services — are encouraged to contact the organization.
How to help after tragedies
Red Cross: Donations can be made for fire relief at redcross.org and designated for Wayne County, or sent to the agency at 829 E. Main St., Richmond, IN 47374. Gifts do not go to individual victims. Volunteers are also sought to assist fire victims with their social service needs (in pairs). Contact Dana Mollenkopf at 765-277-0287 for more information.
Donation closet: Central United Methodist Church, 1425 E. Main St., Richmond, accepts referrals from social service agencies for needs such as clothing, baby gear, kitchen/household items and small furniture. Its most-needed donations currently include shoes, kitchen items, bedding and larger-sized clothing. Before dropping off items, call the church at 765-962-8543 or Dana Mollenkopf at 765-277-0287 to make arrangements.
First responders: East Central Indiana Critical Incident Stress Management (ECI-CISM) provides first responders with mental health care and support after responding to tragedies. First responders or those who know of someone who could benefit from services are encouraged to contact Fred Bunzendahl at 765-309-8253 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations may be earmarked for ECI-CISM at rushmemorialhospitalfoundation.com or sent to P.O. Box 215, Rushville, IN 46173.
A version of this article appeared in the February 7 2024 print edition of the Western Wayne News.