QUICK: If your house was burning down around you & you only had time to save one thing, what would it be?
For most of us, this question's a silly party game but for East Fallser Colleen Moffitt, it was her worst nightmare.
In July 2010, she and her oldest daughter, Dakota, were watching TV on the couch, when they smelled smoke coming from below them. Colleen's first instinct was to charge to the basement to fight the fire, but her daughter's begging brought her around: her two younger ones were upstairs in the tub!
As smoke poured up from the cellar stairs, they got the girls out in time -- but just barely. Cheyenne and Angel had only the towels on their backs to keep them warm until neighbors rallied around while their home burned swiftly to the ground.
Turns out, they'd only had time to grab each other. What they didn't lose to the flames, they lost to smoke & water damage. Not just possessions and memories, but also pets: a turtle and two kittens, likely asphyxiated before heat could reach them, but still. This fire wrought tremendous loss & trauma on many levels.
Windows were broken, the roof perforated by firemen fighting the blaze. When it was all over, Colleen Moffitt's house was a disaster zone with no heat or electricity. Her mother (and co-owner of the house) suggested they sell it, but to Colleen, the house is worth more than a number on a piece of paper.
"Besides my kids, this house is the only thing I own, " she told us, "I can't give up on it. I won't."
The house has been in her family for generations, starting with her grandmother who remembers the street when it was cobblestone, and the occasional horse still clip-clopped past pulling milk carts or kitchen wares.
A fixer-upper even before the fire, the house only needs a few more repairs before her girls can come home again. "I'm not trying to make it pretty -- I just need walls and floors and basic kitchen appliances, I can do the rest myself once I'm in here."
She's had some help along the way, including new windows thanks to a winning lottery ticket, plus a new roof & siding compliments of neighbor "Wayne on Indian Queen Lane, the guy with Ross the Rhodesian Ridgeback..." (and the big heart!). The City of Philadelphia even provided all new electrical, and she's good to go for heat too just as soon as she's got all her walls in.
Ugh, that last part again: just as soon as she's got all her walls in.
Our neighbor and her children need walls so they can be a family again. That's their dream -- dry wall. Floors where there are holes or asbestos tiles. A fridge and stove, and a level, enclosed room to sit them in.
The house is just sitting there, waiting! Paid for and legal and wired up for power tools. So close!
Right now, Colleen and her two younger daughters (age 13 and 17) share two rented rooms, while her mother stays with friends. Her older daughter gave her mom her car money, but the family dreams of being together under one roof soon. It's been four long years, they're tired and frustrated.
Colleen's under doctor's care for debilitating back pain, and she's been in & out of depression and financial strain. Neighbors initially sent bags of clothes, supplies and even furniture but they sit unused in her uninhabitable house, waiting for a day that's starting to feel will never come.
Touring the place today with Colleen & her daughter Cheyenne -- this family's pain was palpable. For once, I put my camera down during an interview. These are not the pictures I want to take of East Falls.
But maybe, with the help of generous East Fallsers, we'll have some happy tears at the Moffitt home again soon...
Colleen's neighbors asked us to share her story in the hopes of crowd-sourcing the help she so desperately needs: dry wall, flooring, appliances. Again, nothing fancy, just the bare basics needed to get by. After four years in two rooms, more space would be such an incredible luxury, the idea of fussing over paint or rugs seems ridiculous.
The ideal goal would be this Mother's Day -- is it possible?
YOU CAN HELP COLLEEN!
Donate here on GoFundMe!
Volunteer! Dates to be announced shortly!
Have other ideas?
Please email editor@EastFallsLocal.com and we'll pass your contact info straight along, plus we'll broadcast a customized "East Falls Local" thank you through social media that you're free to share & appropriate as needed. Of course, you'll become a part of Colleen's story as we follow her home rehab and home coming.
Thank you for sharing Colleen's story, and for any help you can offer -- including words of support and encouragement in the comments below. Ita long, cold winter when every day you wake up missing home.
Story and photos originally printed in East Falls Local by the amazing Carolyn Fillmore.