LEWISTON — A city faced with back-to-back tragedies continues to show an outpouring of support for its citizens as donations pile up for fire victims.
Laurie Levine, a Red Cross volunteer, greeted people with a smile at the door to the temporary Lewiston High School shelter. Just inside, tables were manned for registration and assistance.
"The community has been amazing," Levine said, "We had a family come in, and (the mother) had tears of joy when we took her to the YWCA for supplies."
Levine said Tim Horton's supplied breakfast at the shelter Sunday and Shaw's was bringing dinner.
"We've had wonderful volunteers." Levine said, crediting Pathway Vineyard Church and the 10 volunteers they sent with supplies for sandwiches, potato salad and coleslaw.
Levine said that although the Red Cross doesn't ask for items, families have been dropping off donations for those starting over with nothing.
"The one thing we really need right now is cash donations," Levine said, explaining that last year the Red Cross assisted 60 families and this year that number has already hit 400.
Levine also wanted to thank Lewiston High School for its help. "The janitors have really pitched in," with extra janitorial staff on hand to keep up with the demands of the temporary residents.
Principal Gus LeBlanc has been checking in twice a day to make sure everyone's needs are attended to.
Teachers have also been coming in to help prepare for their students who have lost everything, and some are filling backpacks with essentials for those students.
Eric Lynes, response manager for the Red Cross, anticipates wrapping up shelter operations at LHS by Tuesday but said that will not happen until every person has been taken care of.
"Whenever I open a shelter, I'm thinking about how soon I can close it," said Lynes, who's been with the Red Cross for 17 years.
Lynes said 27 families were taken to City Hall Sunday to find housing assistance.
Working with an all-Somali population at LHS, Lynes said he told shelter residents, "What brought us together is a disaster. What will keep us together is our love for the community."
Lynes expected to house 50 and serve 100 meals Sunday night with his staff of eight to 10 volunteers per shift.
Down the street at Shaw's, a Lewiston ladder truck and Hudson school bus sat in the back of the parking lot, taking donations.
According to Les Buzzell, a Hudson bus driver, the bus in Lewiston had been parked since 5 a.m. with others also deployed to Shaw's and Walmart in Auburn Sunday morning.
Buzzell said Hudson donated the use of the buses and the drivers volunteered their time, accepting various donations for the fire victims in conjunction with the Salvation Army and Red Cross.
By 1 p.m. all three buses were nearly full. According to Buzzell, the full buses will be parked in the garage until the Red Cross can distribute the donations.
At City Hall, offices were opened and manned with employees, volunteers and representatives from Catholic Charities of Maine.
A group of men waited in the hallway while families sought housing aid. Hussein Ahmed of Lewiston was among them, volunteering to transport heads of families and, if necessary, offer translation services for them.
"There are still families from the previous fire," Ahmed said, confirming that the latest tragedy has compounded the housing crisis among victims.
"We have some families occupying two four-bedroom units, now how do we find that?" Ahmed added, pointing out that the larger family sizes among the Somali community requires larger accommodations.
Twenty-four-year-old Ashley Medina waited in line with her mother, Gloria, and 2-year-old son, Jacoby Joseph. Medina, a resident of 114 Pierce St., was not home when the fire broke out.
"My kids are usually in bed by 8:30 p.m. but I had a bad feeling," Medina said. Medina explained she had a dream about running from a fire and that she had a nagging feeling that she should go spend some time at her mother's Friday evening, something she never does.
Busy Jacoby darted around legs in the aid office and traded smiles with strangers gathered there.
"My son thinks it's Christmas," Medina said, referring to the new clothes and toys lavished upon him. Her daughter, Liahna Palmer, 6, is old enough to realize the gravity of the situation and, according to Medina, has been traumatized by the loss.
Medina, who works as a certified nursing assistant at Montello Manor, said she is taking a little time to readjust with her family before heading back to work.
Medina's name was called, and a woman at the window took her hand and asked how she was doing. She returned a few moments later and said, "The lady I was just talking to said there are no more buildings" with apartments available.
Medina and her children are staying with her mother and grandmother. Two months ago, the grandmother was trapped in a fire on Pine Street and spent two days in the hospital from smoke inhalation. She now panics at the sound of a fire engine or talk about fires.
Medina stays positive through the experience, "There are still pretty nice people out there," she said, "It definitely opened my eyes."
She said an old friend from middle and high school who now works for the Lewiston Fire Department had just dropped off clothes, toys and kitchen supplies, telling her, "Whenever you need the rest, give us a call."
Tina Pelletier of North Country Real Estate Management managed 29 units that were lost in the second fire. She was at City Hall meeting with tenants and offering support. "It's so devastating," Pelletier said, when the fire broke out, "I couldn't even swallow for the first five hours."
Pelletier said that all but two units had recently undergone extensive rehabilitation, including sprinklers. "Thank God everybody got out," Pelletier said.
Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community, Pelletier said, "It amazes me; you see so much bad, then you see this."
Medina said that although Pelletier has no apartments available for her at the moment, she said she will keep in touch.