With only a few days until Christmas, a young Catonsville family again has a roof over its head, clothes bulging out of dresser drawers, a Christmas tree twinkling in the corner of theirhome and hopes for a good Christmas, thanks to the generosity of several local Santas, area churches, Southwest Emergency Services and the Arbutus Senior Center.
Two months ago, Stephanie Hartel; and her boys, Richard, 9, Isaiah, 7, Trae, 6, and Charles, 3, had lost everything.
It happened around dinner time on Oct. 5.
Hartel, 25, had just dropped clean clothes off in her sons' room, noticed Charles was playing with Matchbox cars and left to take care of another chore.
Moments later, one of her older sons — she doesn't remember which one — raced out of the bedroom, alarmed.
"Mom," he told her, "there's nothing but smoke!"
She raced into the bedroom, grabbed her youngest child, and rounded up Isaiah and Trae. Richard was nothome.
It was too late to get back into the house to retrieve any belongings after she got the boys out. Fire raged through their second-floor apartment in Violetville.
All that was left was ash.
The children'spetsnake and lizard perished. Their toys melted. All those clean clothes went up in smoke.
"I didn't get anything out except my kids," Hartel said.
Firefighters said the blaze began in the bedroom but were unable to determine a cause.
Her father took her in, until she could get back on her feet.
Within two weeks, she had found a three-bedroom apartment in Catonsville.
The community sprang into action to help her.
Hartel went first to Southwest Emergency Services for clothes and was lucky to find help with a security deposit for an apartment.
A SWES volunteer, hearing her story, called on her church, Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, to help.
"We jumped into gear and did what we needed to do," said Jackie Jones, a member of the Lansdowne church's Mission Committee.
Then a member of the Arbutus Senior Center heard about the fire and rallied her fellow seniors.
Community groups provided the basic necessities, from clothes to food and cleaning supplies. They even supplied sleeping bags since the family didn't have beds yet.
Necessities out of the way, the congregation began thinking about Christmas.
"They are our Christmas mission," Jones said.
In addition to a tree, the group is helping out Santa with some special items for the whole family, as well as Christmas dinner.
"Our people are so faithful," she said. "They make sure they do what God has called them to do."
At the Arbutus Senior Center, the center's first-ever Angel Tree has been dedicated to Hartel and her boys. Ornaments on the tree have suggestions for gifts for the boys and their mother, and seniors have been busy buying and wrapping all kinds of goodies.
"We adopted the family for the whole year," said Nancy Hackley, who met Hartel's father at work and was acquainted with Stephanie.
The seniors delivered Thanksgiving dinner and plan to remember each of the boys' birthdays.
Hackley said the senior center had been looking around for a Christmas project when the fire occurred. "We couldn't have gotten a more needy family," said Hackley, who as vice president of the center's council is responsible for community outreach.
"It was truly a community effort," she added. "A lot of people stepped up to the plate."
They tried to think of everything a family would need.
A trip to the Catonsville United Methodist Church rummage sale yielded bunk beds, living room furniture and kitchen supplies.
When it came time to pay for it all, the rummage sale organizers would only take half price. "They were wonderful," Hackley said.
Hackley took the boys for haircuts and new shoes for their first day at Hillcrest Elementary School.
Others have helped, too. For instance, Violetville Elementary School, where three of the boys had been enrolled, held a bake sale, and gave Hartel about $300. "It was very nice," Hartel said.
Even in the thick of all the senior center's arrangements for helping Hartel and her sons, Hackley has noticed how many people have come forward to help.
"I was terribly impressed," she said. "I didn't know it would go this far."
Hartel said she's grateful for the help she has received.
Because of a disability, she's unable to work. But one by one, she's overcome hurdles.
Her children are adjusting to their new school. They are getting over the shock of the fire and the loss of everything they owned, especially their pets.
"They're fine," Hartel said. "It really scared them."
It's taken time, but the young mother is recovering, too.
Every day, she said, she notices something else she lost in the fire.
Though exhausted by the whole experience, she's looking ahead, and hopes to earn her GED and, above all, take care of her family.
"They need a stable life," she said.