Fire in a Church: Conclusion

FINAL INSTALLMENT (You can read fire in a Church part one here and Fire in a Church part two here.)

Six weeks ago, I found myself at the back of a church with a man I didn’t know. Within seconds I realized he had set the church sanctuary on fire, before traveling along the ambulatory to the hallway near me. When I encountered him in the hall, he had two lighters in his hands and he was surrounded by smoke, but it didn’t wholly register at the time.

A distant smoke alarm and the smell of smoke drew me out into the hallway; however, adrenaline sent me running for safety. 

That man is the suspect in the St. Paul’s UMC fire. The sanctuary of the church is beyond repair. They estimate close to two years to rebuild it.

Aerial view of fire damage, St. Paul’s UMC

Lifted Spirits has been serving vulnerable clients from rented rooms at the back of the church. Although those rooms didn’t sustain fire damage, they are now closed due to smoke, asbestos, and lead contamination. The building is without power as well.

Doors and windows are covered in plastic with warning signs

Asbestos can’t be easily washed out of clothes, and professional remediation costs are prohibitive.

Our entire inventory is gone.

My dear friends, along with other supporters in the community, rallied quickly. As a result, we’ve received donations of men’s and women’s t-shirts, some shorts, and new socks, underwear, and hygiene items. Friends have also donated gift cards and cash so we can purchase items as needed.

Racks of donated clothing, color-coded hangers by size

Before the fire, I had set up canopies and washable rugs and tables in the outdoor serving area. This area provides a shady place to sit and relax. In addition, I’ve started serving lemonade and scones, a welcome treat for people coming in off the streets. 

Canopies provide some shade and respite

I rented a portable storage unit (PODS or Portable on demand Storage), bought some shelves and plastic bins. The POD provides 128 square feet of surface space and vertical space from shelves. We were operating with 1,900 square feet indoors.

POD: Week one
POD: Week four

I’ve been emptying a shed to allow us some extra storage. We donated fifty like-new chairs since it would cost more to store them long-term than to replace them. It feels good to pass them on to another non-profit. One of our board members agreed to keep the Christmas items, and we offered the remaining contents to those in need.

Lifted Spirits has weathered many storms in the four-plus years of my tenure. First, I started volunteering in the clothing boutique and eventually became the lead volunteer. Then, I spent three years as Board Vice-chair and poured my heart and soul into every aspect of our programs. 

The church that started Lifted Spirits sold the property out from under us. Then the pandemic hit, stopping the respite portion of our program. Finally, last year, the new developer gave us four months to move, and we landed at St. Paul’s UMC in the eleventh hour. Then eight months to the day, the sanctuary went up in flames, and we find ourselves renting a fenced parking lot.

We serve our clients in the middle of the day. The summer temps are high and the overhead sun heats the blacktop surface where we operate. It takes an hour to set everything up. As a further complication, ants quickly invaded the food pantry while lingering soot drifted down from the church.

It’s hard not to feel discouraged. The program’s future is once again uncertain. Most days, I wilt in the heat. We leave exhausted at the end of the shift, lucky to have homes where we can retreat.

In the end, that’s why I continue to show up. But, that said, it’s not easy.

Fire in a Church: Part Two

SECOND INSTALLMENT (You can read Fire in a Church part one here)

Adrenaline kept me on my feet for another two hours.

Firefighters were on the scene within minutes of the first 911 call. I hung up with the dispatcher and ran toward San Salvador Avenue, where crews tackled the fire. I scanned the scene, making eye contact with a firefighter and explaining my concern. He led me down the street to the rear of the building, where the suspect found himself trapped in the children’s playground, trying to climb the fence.

I spoke to the San Jose State University police, the first on the scene. They took my statement but asked me to hang around to talk to the San Jose police. The suspect tossed two lighters over the fence into the shrubbery, and a nearby resident caught it on camera. She started recording the fire and saw him throwing the lighters, later recovered by police.

I texted Mike in couple’s shorthand, “Church on fire. I got out ok.”

The fire had already made the news.

I sent the same abbreviated message to our program executive director, then climbed a few steps of a nearby dorm to catch my breath and to document the scene.

Another police officer arrived and said, “come with me.” He wanted me to identify the suspect. I made it clear that the man I saw had been in the building but that I did NOT see him set the fire. A third officer asked more questions and then kicked around the bushes for the tossed lighters. I directed him to a patrol car, where another officer had placed the lighters as evidence. Every moment seemed surreal.

Then I texted Mary.

Mary is the person who introduced me to the Lifted Spirits program several years ago, and we became fast friends. We compliment each other’s strengths and make a good volunteer team. She’s the kind of friend you want by your side in a crisis: calm, supportive, present, and willing to jump in her car and head downtown with a bottle of water.

Yet another interview. Photo credit: Mary McCall

The church property brimmed with firefighters, paramedics (in case a firefighter fell off the roof), police officers, and investigators. Newscasters appeared with cameras and started interviewing the church pastor. People wanting to make a buck approached to offer boarding-up services. As it turns out, the fire department does that for you.

There were no injuries in the fire, and they arrested the suspect. I’m not an expert on mental health, but my layperson’s observation is that he needs help. I’m sad for the church and heartbroken for yet another Lifted Spirits setback. Additionally, I’m disappointed in this country’s broken mental healthcare system. Perhaps this could have all been prevented if he got the care he needed.

The fire went to two alarms, but crews contained the heavy damage to the sanctuary where it started. Our rented portion of the building suffered water and smoke damage, and of course, the power is out on the entire property.

My final interview of the day took place just outside the sanctuary doors. The arson investigator asked if the suspect had said anything to me, and I said yes, but it sounded like gibberish. She nodded, saying she had tried speaking to him as well. She said he would be arrested and charged with arson, but he would also get help. When I asked how long it might be before we would be up and running, she said, “It’s never as fast as you would like.” Of course, I already knew that, but I still hoped for some brighter news. She thanked me as well, saying that only about five percent of arson fires are ever solved.

Another firefighter offered to recover my purse and car keys from the building so I could drive myself home. Unfortunately, he couldn’t locate it, so he escorted me through to find it. Thank goodness for N95 masks. The smoke burned my eyes and caught in my throat.

At last, I was free to go.

to be continued…

Fire in a Church

I found myself alone in a church with an arsonist last month.

The stress of the day sits heavily in my chest, disturbing my sleep and leaving me exhausted and, at times, weepy.

I lead a team of volunteers serving unhoused and vulnerable women in downtown San Jose. We rent space at the back of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Our Lifted Spirits program offers clothing and hygiene, a hot lunch, and, most of all, support to women in a non-judgemental environment.

Lifted Spirits Mannequins dressed in donated clothes

As I prepared to leave for the day, just half an hour behind our last volunteer, I heard what turned out to be a distant smoke alarm. I dismissed it at first as it seemed far away, but then I smelled smoke.

Entering the main corridor just a short distance away, I encountered a man I had never seen before. He stood in the hallway enveloped in white smoke, holding something in both hands. He turned to me and said something incoherent. I fled.

The corridor where I encountered the suspect showing smoke and water damage

I returned to our serving area, locked the door, then fumbled to call 911. Unfortunately, my phone wouldn’t work, or more accurately, my fingers couldn’t seem to work the phone. I tried clearing the screen, searched for the 911 number that I knew had to be there, and finally managed to call for help.

As the dispatcher picked up, I saw the man from the hallway exit our building, then walk along the enclosed patio area where we serve our clients.

I blurted out on the phone with the dispatcher: “I’m alone in a church with the man I think set the fire, and I’m scared.”

Knowing he was outside and fearing his return, I fled through the smoky corridor to the front of the church. Small puffs of white smoke emanated from the sanctuary’s roof.

A couple of passersby had stopped and also called 911. As the engines arrived at the scene, I remained on the phone. Then I ran to the street to tell one of the firefighters that I didn’t want the suspected arsonist to get away.

St. Paul’s UMC fire, June 8, 2022

To be continued…

Weekend Anniversaries

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the States. It’s also the fifth anniversary of a tiny kitten named Tessa finding her way into the battery compartment of Mike’s Tesla.

Just freed from the battery compartment
Tessa, 7 weeks old, in my sister’s arms

Five years ago, freeing her from the car required a trip across town to the service center, 45 minutes, and three experts. You can read real the full story here.

We instantly fell in love with this striking little love and named her Tessa. Now the feline count is three.

Like many felines, Tessa can be aloof, but she also surprises us with sweet hugs. She climbs into your lap, then places each paw across your neck or chest, emitting a soft purr. It’s endearing and worth the wait.

Tessa, my snuggle bug

This weekend also coincides with my 11th blogging anniversary. It’s been a journey of love and laughter, loss and support, and an unexpected wealth of deep friendships I could never have thought possible. If you’re a blogger, you need no explanation. If you’re reading and thinking about starting a blog, please do.

Blogging has enriched my life. But, I miss it like an old friend when life’s demands put out the call as they have of late. Thanks for joining me in this space. Your presence means more than you know.

Happy Anniversary, Tessa!

#WorldNakedGardeningDay

For the record, Mary made me do it.

Also for the record, Mike was delighted to help.

Without further ado, pop on over to Twitter and follow the hashtag #WorldNakedGardeningDay

World Naked Gardening Day

The Weight of the World and a Mysterious Bead

Four years with a derelict president, the pandemic, and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine make it hard to get out of bed each day. If ever the cliché of carrying the world’s weight were true, it is now.

I’m grateful to have a bed, a roof over my head, a loving family, and relative safety. It’s impossible, however, to shed this grief and the daily worry of “what next?” as images of women and frightened children pepper the news. I feel hopeless and helpless in the face of a monster.

In late December, one of the unhoused women I serve showed me a weighty bead that rolled into her tent.

Heavy bead with gold and silver texture

She had no idea how it got there and made it clear she didn’t let anyone inside her tent. She thought it might be a map of Russia since it sported a small red star, but on further examination, it seemed abstract. Most of all, she was worried that it might be a bad omen.

I don’t believe in omens or superstitions, but she does, and that’s what matters. I offered to hold on to it for her, and she seemed relieved. She warned me to be careful if anything terrible started happening to me.

I didn’t see her in the intervening weeks, and the bead remained in a drawer downtown. I eventually brought it home and created a charm from my collection of buttons and ephemera.

Charmed with Affection

I made a small card to go with the charm and gave it to her when she returned.

You Are Awesome

I wrote:

Dear [ ],
I turned the beautiful bead you found in your tent into a charm. It’s infused with affection and hope. You deserve a life off of the streets. Carry this with you as a reminder that our Lifted Spirits volunteers want the best for you.

With affection, Alys

The clear button and the leaf from my stash represent water and earth, and her bead represents the global community. I turned an object of fear into a thing of beauty and hope. I wish I could do the same for our weary world.

I’m carrying my own heavy burdens closer to home. The sadness is mine, but the circumstances are not mine to share. Instead, I have a sorrow deep in my chest, reflecting it outward through my weary eyes. It invades my sleep.

I long for peace.

Mending a Treasure

I love a good mend. This formerly plush and well-loved treasure belongs to one of my clients. She entrusted him to my care when I offered to bring him back to whole.

I made sure she wasn’t concerned with historical preservation which is a whole different thing, but instead a simple mend to keep his chin up.

Isn’t he adorable?

After years of presumed hugging and loving, this plush leopard was in danger of losing his head.

Damaged neck
Neck surgery is in order

Notice the grey stuffing around the neck? Believe it or not I had two sections of grey insulation from a Christmas gift. The insulation, once covered in plastic, protected a shipment of gourmet ice cream. Yum!

I stored the insulation in the garage, thinking I would use it for packaging one day. Little did I know that a month later, I would be using it to mend a plush toy. The color and texture were the perfect material to replace the lost stuffing. Most new plushies are filled with white fiberfill. This plushie is padded with heavy, grey scraps. Kismet!

Once I had the stuffing sorted, I contemplated different options to support the neck. It’s unlikely to fall into a child’s hands given its fragile state, but I wanted the support to be child-friendly nonetheless. I settled on a cardboard spool from some twine.

With the support and the filling in place, I pulled out a spool of waxed thread and a curved needle and carefully stitched the opening back together. I had to get creative with my stitches as some of the fabric couldn’t support a taut stitch. Instead, I worked my needle through the stuffing and then the fabric, bringing the layers back together.

The stitches on the back of the neck are uneven, but they were the best I could do without risk of damaging the material. I managed more even stitches when I mended the side of the face and the tail.

Looking handsome with his new bow

I tied a bow around his neck made from vintage seam binding and I added a hand-made tag.

It’s nice to be entrusted with someone’s treasure. I hope I’ve done him proud.

If only he could talk!

Putting My Paper Scraps to Work

Once a month, bloggers world-wide are encouraged to share a project our two made entirely out of scraps. To learn more about this ScrapHappy venture, be sure to check out Kate’s blog.

I put a lot of scraps to work this month.

First up, I made a birthday card for a friend’s Aunt Ramona. Kate’s aunt turns 102 in March, and she hopes to receive 102 cards to ring in her birthday. I used the tear-off cover of an appointment calendar to help her celebrate this milestone.

The paper is a lovely weight with pretty flowers, so it made up beautifully into a card. I used my embosser to add the quilted texture and a simple scrap of green to frame the happy birthday sentiment. Inside I added a small envelope trimmed with Washi tape to hold a pair of lottery scratchers.

After tidying my craft table, I sorted the pile of small scraps by color. Whenever I sort my paper, it lasts for about a year or two, and then I haul it out and sort it again.

All that sorting allowed me to create my second project, a purple Valentine for my sister. I cut four shades of purple paper into one-inch squares, then glued them to a scrap of paper in rows with half-inch offsets. I ran the purple squares through my Big Shot using a heart-shaped die; then I embossed the heart with a floral pattern.

Using the same die, I cut a heart from the front of a white card. I placed the purple heart into the negative space, then backed it with a scrap of vellum to hold it in place.

This month my final scrap-happy project pulled together paper scraps, leftover paper doilies, red rick-rack rescued from an unused box of fabric, and small coin envelopes once used by a church. They were part of the big clean-out when a developer purchased the church building that once housed Lifted Spirits. I added pink paper from last year’s projects and made a dozen crafting kits for our Little Free Library.

I gathered the assorted scraps into wax lunch bags. I folded the top with a tag and hole-punched the layers together, tying them with leftover twine.

Thanks as always, Kate. Be sure to checkout the creativity underway at the blogs listed below.

KateGun, EvaSue, Lynn, Lynda,
Birthe, Turid, Susan, Cathy,  Tracy, Jill,
Claire, JanMoira, SandraChris,
ClaireJeanJon, DawnJuleGwen,
Bekki, Sunny, Kjerstin, Sue LVera,
NanetteAnn, Dawn 2, Bear, Carol,
Preeti, EdithDebbierose 

Our LFL Gets a Cameo on Good Morning America

Megan Hanson, from the non-profit Little Free Library reached out to a number of LFL stewards in December, encouraging us to apply for a free book bundle. Stewards would also have a chance to have their LFL featured on Good Morning America.

El Codo Way Little Free Library

I didn’t win the book bundle, but she contacted me again last week and said I was one of 150 LFL stewards to be selected for the February book club. Megan wrote:

I’m reaching out because a few months ago you entered to win books through LFL’s partnership with Good Morning America. While you were not selected in January, you have been selected to win two copies of Good Morning America’s February Book Club Pick! Here’s what you can expect next: February 1 is the proposed air date for the Good Morning America segment. They will announce their February Book Club pick and share a map of the 150 Little Free Libraries that received copies of the book–including yours! They will encourage viewers to visit those libraries to find a copy of the book. They may even feature photos of select little libraries on air.

Good Morning America

A photo of our LFL appears in the segment! I feel like a twelve-year-old. It put such a bounce in my step to see our Little Free Library and Donna Pierre’s beautiful design featured on the morning TV show. It’s also an honor to place a copy of his book in our LFL.

Two copies of The Violin Conspiracy

Here is the link to the two-minute segment on Good Morning America, featuring Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel The Violin Conspiracy. Our LFL is pictured towards the end of the segment. Following is a blurb about his book:

Slocumb’s debut novel is a riveting page-turner about a Black classical musician’s desperate quest to recover his lost violin on the eve of the most prestigious musical competition in the world.

Good Morning America

Doesn’t this sound like a great read? I received two copies of Slocumb’s book. I placed one in the library on the designated day, and after reading the second copy, I’ll place it in a different LFL in the community. I can’t wait to get started.

The Violin Conspiracy
Posing with Slocumb’s book before putting in to ur LFL

Thank you Little Free Library for all you do in the community. Mr. Slocumb, I wish you great success with your novel.

Little Free Library new book
Placing The Violin Conspiracy in our Little Free Library

A Hike at Alum Rock

We spent a glorious Sunday afternoon hiking at Alum Rock Park in San Jose. We should be sheltering from the rain this time of year, but our drought continues. So instead, we enjoyed the dry, warm conditions and the chance to spend an afternoon outdoors.

Looking down from one of the many bridges in the park

Alum Rock is a treat for the senses. Sulfur springs still move through the hills, delivering the unmistakable aroma as you hike the trails. Further up, the paths are shaded and cool, with that rich mix of forest smells.

Grotto
Mineral springs flows beneath the grotto

Here is a bit of history of this iconic park:

Alum Rock Park was founded in 1872 and is one of California’s oldest municipal parks. Nestled within the Alum Rock Canyon in the foothills of the Diablo Range, the Park’s 720 acres of natural, rugged beauty, provide visitors with many leisure outdoor activities including hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, family and group picnicking, and of course just relaxing.

From 1890 to 1932 the park was a nationally known health spa with 27 mineral springs, an indoor swimming pool, tea garden, restaurant, and dance pavilion. At the time you could ride from downtown San Jose to the park on the Alum Rock Steam Railroad, a ride that cost a quarter. Today, remnants of the railroad bridges can be seen, some of the stone grottos that contain mineral springs are still accessible, but now the charms of the park focus on nature, wildlife, and hiking.

City of San Jose

I’m always intrigued by the rock formations. They’re quite beautiful and varied, composed of minerals dating back to the Jurassic age.

Mineral springs flow from the mountain side

Aren’t they something?

We meandered along the path, with my ever-patient husband willing to stop along the way so I could take photos.

Mike enjoying the day

I had fun crossing a few bridges, but I had to hold my breath crossing a short, narrow ledge. For the most part though, it was a gentle climb.

Arched stone bridge and stairs
Pedestrian truss bridge
Wildflowers above a stream

A few blooming wildflowers caught my eye, the yellow ones, above, and this white Oxalis.

Oxalis
A squirrel in the sun

There were no bobcats or rattlesnakes along the path, but I spotted this cute squirrel toward the end of our hike. From a distance he blended into the rocks.

With my sweetie, married 26 years

A few final photos of the day:

Hiking Alum Rock has been a highlight of the month. We’re so lucky to live just seven miles from this gem.