Wearing just their T-shirts and underwear, Christina Means and her family escaped from a house fire that struck in the middle of the night.
They watched the Rosedale house burn in the cold December air and waited for the firetrucks, wrapped in the one blanket Means had grabbed when the smoke detectors had sounded and her boyfriend had shouted that he saw flames out the window.
"We were so scared, we just ran out," Means said. "No shoes, no socks."
In the next 48 hours one thing became clear: All their possessions were burned or water-damaged, and a lapsed renters' insurance policy meant they were going to have to start over. The only thing they salvaged was a few photographs.
On Saturday morning, two months after the fire, cars stuffed with donated furniture pulled up in front of a new apartment for Means, her boyfriend, Clyde Randall Jr., and her son, Jarrell Burden, a first-grader at Shady Spring Elementary School. The school community had come together to support them.
"I am so amazed at what we got," Means said. "If it wasn't for the donations, I couldn't move in."
After the fire Dec. 8, one of her first calls had been to the guidance counselor at Jarrell's school. Within hours, Shady Spring staff members and parents had mobilized. Word of the family's plight spread through email and Facebook. Donations came pouring in from the neighborhood school, which has one of the highest percentages of homeless students in Baltimore County.
Means and Randall found a new place in a different housing complex, close to Jarrell's school and to Means' job as a guard for Assurance Security. On Saturday, members of the Shady Spring community unloaded groceries, a bed for Jarrell, a glass dining-room table and chairs, Lenox china, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, towels and a host of other supplies, all donated by school staff.
Guidance counselor Wendy Carver walked through the door with a bag of groceries and a flowering plant. She ticked off the list of teachers who had donated the boxes of items stacked in the kitchen.
"Those are from Jarrell's classroom teacher," she told Means. "And this is from the music teacher, and the kindergarten teacher." Upstairs, Jarrell was watching Mike McEwan, the husband of a fifth-grade teacher, assemble a new bed. In the living room, a sofa and love seat donated by Means' employer were already in place.
After the fire, the three had essentially been homeless, and they didn't have enough savings to put down a security deposit of two months' rent on a new place. Means' sister gave them shelter, squeezing them into her two-bedroom apartment. But life wasn't easy with seven people sharing the space.
Donations arrived at her sister's apartment. Carver said so many people came forward with money, clothes and gifts before Christmas that she was making two trips a week to the shared apartment, her car crammed with items.
The Red Cross gave the family about $1,000, including $500 to help put a deposit down on the next place. About $250 came from Rosedale Federal Savings and Loan, and hundreds of dollars were donated by staff and parents from Shady Springs.
Randall, 31, and Means, 26, both work full time. Randall is a laboratory technician for a Cockeysville company. But even with the donations of cash and gift cards, it took them two months to assemble more than $2,400 for the security deposit and first month's rent.
Randall said he has seen tragedies before but has never seen such an outpouring of support.
What brings tears to Carver's eyes is how Jarrell has rallied. A couple of times a week, she said, he will see the guidance counselor in the hall and say, "Ms. Carver, thank you for helping my family."
"He is so appreciative. He is a sweetheart of a kid," Carver said.
Means and Randall are still wondering what caused the fire.
The report they got from the Baltimore County Fire Department said only that the fire was under investigation. Means and Randall say they suspect the fire started outside the house, in an electrical power meter, and that they were told there was a gas-line explosion in the front yard.
A Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman said she could not access records of the fire Friday.
Means and Randall are getting renters' insurance, and Means said she is going to keep a little bag of her things that she can grab if she has to leave her house quickly. She never wants to sit outside freezing and undressed in the cold again.
"Next year, if we are doing a little better, I would like to adopt a family," Means said, adding that there are so many other families in need that she would like to give something back. She is sure Carver could help her with that.