The way the kids were smiling and enjoying themselves at the downtown Ottawa store, few would have guessed they were waiting to learn where they would sleep that night.
Richard Wadewitz and his family of seven aren’t completely homeless, but with the house they were renting badly damaged in a Feb. 21 electrical fire, it’s beginning to feel that way, he said.
The fire began about 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at 935 E. Ninth St., according to a fire report. The blaze started in the living room and caused an estimated $75,000 worth of damage to the structure and contents of the house, Jeff Carner, Ottawa fire chief, said earlier this week.
Wadewitz said an electric space heater previously caused a minor fire in the living room when it overloaded the electrical outlet and sparked. To prevent another fire, Wadewitz plugged a space heater into a surge protector, he said, so when the device overloaded the outlet, it would switch off instead of spark a fire.
But the preemptive measure apparently wasn’t able to stop the Friday-night fire. Neither the family nor the landlord had insurance covering the structure. Although the fire has put a burden on the family, Wadewitz said, he’s just happy no one was injured. The house was empty when the fire broke out.
“We knew we would have some trouble with the house,” Wadewitz said. “But not this much trouble.”
Tammy Rhoades, owner of Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Closet, 424B S. Main St., Ottawa, has done all she can to help the family, she said, but is upset more people in Ottawa haven’t done much to make sure a family in need gets the assistance they deserve.
“I challenge anyone to come in to [Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Closet] and donate a buck,” Rhoades said. “How many of us have a buck laying around our car, laundry room? Bring the buck in.”
Wadewitz, who works as a machine operator at U.S. Pipe Fabrication (formerly known as Fast Fabricators), 1534 N. Industrial Ave., Ottawa, and his family have been living in a hotel, spending more than they would like on housing, because they can’t find a house in Ottawa they can afford that will fit all seven members, Wadewitz said. The family includes five children: Joshua, 21, Brandon, 17, Noah, 15, Zoe, 8, and Ryan, 7.
“We found a three-bedroom we think we can make work, but it’s $900 a month,” Wadewitz said. “There’s no way I can do $900 a month. That’s twice what we were paying.
“The main problem we’re running into is we can’t find a house big enough [for a low enough cost],” he said.
After the fire, the American Red Cross was notified and assisted the family with a living space for two days. Once the Red Cross assistance ran out, the East Central Kansas Economic Opportunity Corp., through the Salvation Army, stepped in to assist the family in finding a living space for three days. Now both assistance measures are over and the Wadewitz family still doesn’t have anywhere to live.
Along with the struggle to find a home, the family also has lost many belongings to the blaze. Wadewitz said the clothes they could salvage were taken to a laundromat to wash out the stench of smoke, but after spending $60, the smell remains.
“We’ve been able to get a few clothes out of there,” Wadewitz said. “Everything is so smoke damaged.”
Some people have reached out to help, Wadewitz said. The laundromat owner, who Wadewitz said he didn’t know, heard about the fire and the attempt to salvage the clothes and returned the money to the family.
“We spent about $60 in there and the next morning he’s knocking at the hotel door to return our money,” Wadewitz said.
Even previous house fire victims came to assist the family. Wadewitz said Jeff Hodgson, who was the victim of a fire in December, donated as much as he could to the family to assist them in a time of need. The family received several belongings that originally were donated to Hodgson. Wadewitz said friends also have supplied the family with mattresses.
Michelle Green, the mother of the two youngest children affected by the fire, said her son, Ryan, was struggling to handle the situation. She said he lost all his favorite toys and she herself had cried every day since the fire.
It’s difficult for the children because they can’t mentally grasp the severity of the situation, Rhoades said.
“Well, they lost everything,” Rhoades said. “He lost all his favorite toys, his favorite things to do, all his DVDs, his games. I mean as a little kid when you lose your favorite cowboy or your favorite ninja or your favorite whatever, you don’t understand you can’t go get it back. He doesn’t have a clue. He just knows he wants it back.”
While the family has been looking for a home, they also have been forced to move all their belongings they could salvage from the original home and store them in an empty room in the Masonic Temple above Rhoades’ store, Wadewitz said.
Rhoades felt compelled to help the family, she said, because Wadewitz previously assisted her by remodeling the storefront she uses for free.
“This man, back in October, we didn’t know anyone who could help us in this shop — no one,” Rhoades said. “I happened to meet him a few months ago and ask him if he could donate some of his time to the shop. And he did for about a month in October. He donated a lot of time to get this shop set up for God’s work. I told my husband the other night it’s funny how God works and puts certain people in our lives, because who would have ever thought in October their house would have burned down and been without?”
Wadewitz said he wanted to thank everyone who had helped his family so far, and plans to pay it forward to those who might find themselves in the same situation in the future.
“Our plan, the stuff people are donating that we can’t use,” Wadewitz said, “we want to set aside and hopefully help people who are in our situation, and just pass it down the line.”