A Community Response to Tragedy - Editorial

by Eva Marie Woywod - Editor

I first learned about the apartment fire in the wee hours of Monday morning - I was still up and working on our Summer Guide which would need to go to the press by Monday afternoon. A notification appeared that The Messenger has received a message to our Facebook page. That message was from Jeremy James Schneider and it contained pictures of a fire. He informed us it was at the apartments on McEvoy in Mauston and it was currently happening. I do not usually post to our page in the middle of the night but this time I did. Jeremy kept us up to date with a few more messages. I debated about running over to the scene but knew at that point I would be in the way and could not offer any service other than being media. I also had to be up in a few hours as this week we had an early deadline day as we were publishing what is known as a regional edition, our issue along with the Summer Guide was being sent to every household in Juneau County at no cost. Three hours later I awoke to the tragedy.

My inbox was filled with questions about the fire. People wanted to know what was happening, where it was and what they could do. At the time, those questions I was unable to answer. I left home and went to the scene before heading out to Elroy from my home in Mauston. The road was closed and emergency crews were on the scene. They were not answering questions. I expected we would not find out more until a press release was issued.

In the time it took me to get from Mauston to our office in Elroy my inbox was once again filled. Again, people wanted to know what they could do. Go Fund Me pages started appearing in my Facebook newsfeed. Rumors were flying about how the fire started. Mandy (our office manager at the paper) and I were swamped with trying to get the paper and Summer Guide finished while my cell phone vibrated on my desk with notification after notification. I heard from people I used to volunteer with when I was with Circle of Hope, working with the homeless. Everyone wanted to know what they could do to help the victims of the fire.

I knew Red Cross had been called and attempted to find out what the status was. I heard from Kathy Engleman who runs a few Buy, Sell, Trade sites on Facebook she asked about donations to the fire victims. Her pages were blowing up with pretty much the same questions and notices I was getting all morning. I told her I was trying to get some confirmations. I called Mauston City Hall to see what the status was with Red Cross. They were unsure and thought the Red Cross was still at the high school with the victims. I tried calling the high school but there was no answer. I tried calling Red Cross in Madison and LaCrosse but was unable to connect to a person. I left messages. The next call was to the police department who told me the high school was just a staging area in the morning and they thought Red Cross was no longer there. Now it was in the 1:00 hour in the afternoon.

Kathy asked me if a church would be a location for donations. I agreed that it would be. She thought Peace Presbyterian was where I went because of some journaling workshops I had done there for victims of abuse, however, I informed her it wasn't my church. She contacted April Martell from the church while I was also messaging April questioning if she knew of any churches accepting donations. April informed me that her church was meeting later that day and she would ask if they could be a drop off location. By now the press release had hit and we had confirmation on some of the devastation, 16 families had been displaced.

Knowing this community, I knew sooner or later a location would be found. I yelled across the office to Mandy and asked her if she minded if I announce people could drop off items at our office. Usually, Mandy is the only person in the office during week. Mandy did not hesitate and said she had no problems accepting the donations. We announced on our Facebook page that we would take immediate need donations of clothing and toiletries and transport them once a location or charity had been found. During that time I heard from Julie Mecikalski, a special education teacher at New Lisbon High School. She is also a die-hard volunteer who cares about the children and families in the community. She too wanted to know how to proceed forward as it was a given that something needed to happen. Within a few hours, the first of the donations started coming through the door.

Soon after those donations started coming in, April confirmed that Peace Presbyterian agreed to being a drop-off/pickup location. Little did we know then that this week that little brown church across from the Juneau County Justice Center would turn into command central.

We decided on the hours after some discussion and since I had the prior permission from the church and the key so I could hold those journaling workshops, I would open it up to accept donations. My job allows me some flexibility so I decided I would just work from the church. Once word got out volunteers were lining up. We all knew there would be a huge response to the call for donated items but even knowing that did not prepare us for the overwhelming response.

The community area in the basement of the Peace Presbyterian Church started filling up with clothing, some furniture, and toiletries. One by one people filed in to either donate, volunteer, or both. Barb Baker showed up and offered the support of Grace Baptist Church. As a deacon, she said they would agree to open an account at the Bank of Mauston for a Mauston Fire Victims Fund. The money would be used for housing for the victims.

Over the course of the week there have been so many inspiring stories - I wish I had space in the paper to express all of them. We've all cried, laughed, and watched in amazement as all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. We've watched the survivors go from walking around shell shocked to the tragedy sinking in. At first, we had to almost beg them not to feel guilty for taking the donations. We urged them to take as much as they needed. Quite a few of us, Kathy, April and Julie (and more) have been at the church just about every day since Tuesday to witness the love pouring in and wrapping around so many survivors.

We've watched teens in the community come in and volunteer during their first days of summer break. Kathy's daughter Kali has been at the church every day. Julie put us in contact with Gary Anderson who has transported donations all over the county. The last couple of days he has transported the furniture donations from the church to storage units, which were also donated to the survivors of the fire so that they know they will have furniture ready for them when they are in their new locations.

There is an extremely long list of people and businesses who stepped up to the plate and who continue to do so. So long, in fact, I am going to need to triple check my facts as I do not want to slight anyone. Be sure to look to our issue next week for full coverage and those names. I rarely write editorials. The reason for this is space in our paper is a rare commodity and I want to make sure we get in all the news we can - my opinions are not as important. This coming week will be different. I plan on writing a rare editorial for the printed paper.

Tomorrow will be our last day at Peace Presbyterian Church - the little command central for a community's response to a tragedy. Donations have been distributed to the Mauston fire survivors and as of tomorrow survivors of the Adams apartment fire will be getting some care packages from kind Juneau County hearts. The items remaining will be sold in a rummage sale and proceeds will be deposited into that account opened by Grace Baptist at the Bank of Mauston.

If you want to get a glimpse into just how huge the response was from our community, stop by the Peace Presbyterian Church tomorrow morning when we hold the rummage sale. Doors open at 8:00 a.m. If you do stop by, remember that the furniture is in storage, 16 Mauston families have been supplied with items of need, and other items are on the way to Adams. Take in what all of us volunteers have been blessed to witness this past week - Be Proud Juneau County, Be Proud.