By Seth Daniel
The day of June 20 will always have a dark circle around it on the calendar for Alma Soriano and her family, including her husband, Wilber Morales, and young son, Christopher.
That was the day this past summer that her home at 59 Bellingham St. caught fire and burned uncontrollably on a very hot day in early summer. Her family lost everything, including their home, which family members who owned the multi-family could not quickly replace.
“I will never forget that date; it was just a really hard time for my husband and I,” she said this week from her new home on Spencer Avenue. “I can’t forget how hard that was.”
The struggle was real, and for months they were in flux and their 7-year-old son struggled to understand what had happened to his favorite little toys and his cherished Dr. Seuss books – all of which had been burned up in the fire.
Now, though, as Christmas rolls around – exactly six months later – the family has found themselves in a new home and with a new outlook on life. That new outlook not only comes from the soul searching that happens when one’s life is turned upside down, but also from the generosity and help agencies and community members extended to them when they were struggling.
“Sometimes we don’t say thanks to God for what we have,” said Soriano. “We get busy with life and forget, but now I stop to say thank you. That was a very sad time and it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, but it gave me time to really think about how everything can end in a minute; I could have lost my son. Now I can stop and say, ‘Thank you.’ Only God knows what will happen. Realizing all of that has been a good part of all this.”
The other good part, she said, was getting help from total strangers, such as the Chelsea Police, Chelsea Fire, the CONNECT program, CAPIC Intercity and the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership (MBHP).
“It was amazing the people who helped,” she said. “They offered to help and they didn’t even know us. The MBHP was able to give us $3,000 for the first month’s rent so we could get this apartment. We could have never done that. We weren’t on our feet yet. We had nothing.”
Soriano said on June 20, she was at work in the Chelsea Pollo Campero. It was her last day as a supervisor and cashier at the popular chicken restaurant and she was happy to be starting a new job. As she was counting the register on her station, a phone call came in that changed everything.
“My mother-in-law called me and just kept yelling, ‘The house has fire, The house has fire,’” said Soriano. “I was just thinking about my son. He was at the babysitter, my sister-in-law’s apartment, in the house. I left everything in my register and told my boss I had to leave because my house was burning down. I just ran and ran. I was crying and crying and when I got there my whole family was outside and the house was on fire. My son was in the park and he was crying a lot, so I tried to calm down so he wouldn’t be so scared. But I was very scared.”
By 5:30 p.m. that day, Soriano and her family had lost everything.
Nothing remained; not even the floors in their apartment.
The Red Cross helped them to find a hotel room as temporary shelter and gave them gift cards for clothes and food. In the hotel, everything was turned upside down. Soriano contacted her new job and told them she needed some time, but they weren’t willing to wait.
“I lost my new job because of that fire,” she said. “I had to be at the hotel with my son while my husband worked and they couldn’t wait on me. I went for one week without work, but my boss at Pollo Campero allowed me to come back and have my old job when I was ready.”
The most pressing item, however, was finding a place to live. The hotel payment was running out and the family had very few options. Soriano would walk the streets of Chelsea throughout the hot summer days looking for anyone who might be able to help.
She landed at CONNECT, and they brought in MBHP and CAPIC. Through everyone’s efforts, despite intense competition for the apartment on Spencer Avenue, Soriano and her family were able to secure their new home.
With their lives now back together, and Christmas arriving this weekend, Soriano looked at the Christmas tree in her living room. She pointed to new Dr. Seuss books on the shelf that a former teacher had given her son, and she said she said that just maybe the fire was a chance to have a new life the family might have never known – a life where they discovered the generosity within the Chelsea community.
“We feel happy here and we feel more independent because we lived with family and now we have our own place,” she said. “I feel amazing. I feel grateful. I feel like we have another opportunity. I tell my husband every day that we have a new opportunity. We have a new future.”