Like his neighbors in West Chicago's Timber Lake Apartments complex, Jose Rodriguez escaped a fast-moving fire Nov. 4 with his life and little else.
Shellshocked residents recalled fleeing in bare feet, leaving cherished and essential belongings behind to the flames.
"It was my (Hurricane) Sandy," Rodriguez said through an interpreter.
But on Saturday, Rodriguez and others fire survivors received not only the gift of new furniture and mattresses but, more importantly, a return to normalcy and a renewed hope.
Truckloads of furnishings rolled into the complex, past the charred 24-unit building, and into the arms of Wheaton Bible Church volunteers, who helped unload.
Rodriguez initially ignored the pounding on his door the morning of Nov. 4. When he realized it was an emergency, he threw on some clothes and ran. He's been trying to get his life together since, without car keys, important documents and other necessities.
His possessions were "not worth a lot of money, but it's all I have," Rodriguez explained. Watching furniture being carried into units in the complex, Rodriguez said he was "overwhelmed. I feel extremely comforted by everyone helping out."
The aid operation was a joint effort of Outreach Community Ministries and Wheaton Bible Church. The two organizations run Puente del Pueblo, a community center at Timber Lake offering after-school care, literacy classes and counseling.
"Folks in this complex are mostly lower-income, struggling from paycheck to paycheck," said Vanessa Roth, Outreach Community Ministries chief operating officer.
The fire hit residents hard, but it also brought out the best in the community.
On the day of the fire, local teens started a collection for displaced tenants while Puente del Pueblo workers ensured every family had essentials including blankets and a change of clothes.
Donations from Wheaton Bible Church began pouring in and, with help from local businesses like Sleep Innovations and Jubilee Furniture, residents received coupons to purchase furnishings last week.
"It wasn't just, 'Here's a plaid couch,'" Roth said. "We wanted people to be able to shop for furniture. We wanted them to have that dignity."
New furniture crowded 12-year-old Christopher Rangel's apartment Saturday morning. His 2-year-old brother, Alexis, toddled around happily, oblivious to the serious faces of the grown-ups.
Christopher was on the computer Nov. 4 when, "I heard a lady screaming, 'the building is on fire!' and I got scared," he remembered. "I ran out with nothing, just pants and a shirt, no socks, no nothing."
Along with material losses like rent money, mom Juana Beltran said her heart aches from missing irreplaceable videos of the kids and cherished jewelry.
"All the things we lost we can't get back because they're all burned," Christopher said.
But the family is grateful for the good wishes of total strangers and to be together.
"It would be worse if we lost a life," Beltran said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation.
To learn more about Puente del Pueblo, visit http://www.wheatonbible.org/ministry.aspx?ministry_id=257593&site_id=10713Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.