Talk about a rude awakening! It was the early morning of May 26th, 2020 at 12:46 am just after Memorial Day had officially ended, that I was awakened by what sounded like heavy items being moved around and knocked over in the apartment above me.
As I looked around my darkened studio apartment, the reflection of red lights coming from outside of my window alerted me to some kind of unusual activity. Upon looking out the window, I noticed a sea of flashing emergency lights along with firefighters and first-responders busily moving about.
Between the firetrucks and the paramedics, I counted 14 vehicles crowded into our parking lot and spilling out into the side streets surrounding my apartment complex.
After making my way down the hallway to the outside patio-balcony for a better view, I watched as a firetruck extended its ladder up to a floor far above mine while other rescue workers entered the building below.
Soon, everyone was evacuated from 100 apartments across 11 floors. We spent the remainder of the night outside on the grounds amidst the commotion as we tried to process all that was happening. Other firefighters circulated among us checking on our well-being.
We were later directed back inside far away from the now-extinguished fire to the Activity Room where the Fire Chief briefed us as to what was happening and what would become of us over the next few hours.
Four hours later, some of us would return to our water-soaked apartments after they were inspected, while others chose to find drier accommodations. Two floors were closed off entirely and restricted from re-entry. Those of us who left car keys, medication and other essentials behind in the commotion and rush to exit the building would have to make due.
This was a night none of us would forget. I was escorted by two firefighters up the stairs back to my apartment on the 4th floor where upon inspection, I was asked if I wanted to stay or choose another option. It was damp, humid and musty-smelling, yet I chose to stay and try to get some sleep as the sun was now coming up and it had been a long and fairly traumatic night.
Hundreds if not thousands of gallons of water had put out the raging fire. All of that water had to go somewhere, so it was now finding its way slowly down from the upper floors to ground level, saturating everything in its path. Some apartments and hallways were flooded while other apartments were slightly damp. Mine, fortunately, was among the latter.
Unknown to us at the time, falling ceiling plaster, mold and wood rot as a result of widespread water damage would soon become a huge issue. And then there was the asbestos to be removed from the dampened ceilings and walls.
Our solidly-built, brick apartment building tower was constructed back in 1970 when asbestos was not yet an issue. That too would be dealt with in the weeks and months to come. An enormous reconstruction project would soon be underway.
Fast-forward 6 weeks beyond the drying out period and monitoring of water damage and I found myself among many others who were being given a choice of 3 nearby motels that our apartment management company was relocating us to while repairs and rebuilding would soon begin.
A team from the renovation company, Archuleta Restoration and Remodel, LLC came in to carefully pack our belongings, provide an inventory list and move everything for us into a nearby storage area. I was relocated to an Extended Stay America motel room with a kitchenette just a few miles away.
I discovered much to our delight, as I moved into my new motel, free of charge, that it was arranged for us all to enjoy 3 catered meals every day for as long as the renovation took, whether 6 weeks or 6 months, we had no idea.
Out of this tragedy came the following: Free motel room. Free meals and bottled water. Free cable TV and Wi-Fi, and best of all, no rent for as long as it took to renovate our damaged apartments, thanks to Monarch Properties who manages Encino Terrace Apartments where I am staying. And also, thanks to them, our living expenses had just been completely zeroed-out. No more grocery shopping either.
A table was set up in front of the office at our motel, and a local catering company, Royal Empire Catering was now contracted to deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner to us each day. I noticed that some meals were not claimed by our relocated residents despite a variety of very tasty meals being made fresh daily.
I inquired as to what would happen to them by the end of the day, and was told they would be stored in the refrigerator in the office until it became full, then whatever was not used by us or the employees of the motel after 3 days would be thrown out.
I asked the manager if I could take those meals to the city bus transfer station downtown and personally hand them out to anyone that was hungry. I received an enthusiastic response, so the next day, I came around to the back of the office, was given a box to load the meals into along with some bottled water and off I went to hand out free meals downtown.
Never having done anything like this before, I wondered what I should say and if this would be well-received. I parked, grabbed the box of meals and water bottles out of the back of my car, picked out a packaged box lunch to hold up as I approached people and said, “Free meals!”
About 95% of those I approached, accepted with a “Thank you.” Some kindly added a “God bless you!” By the time I had made my way through the plaza to the opposite end of the bus terminal, I had reached everyone who wanted a meal and felt thoroughly elated and quite happy with myself. No meals were left.
Only twice over the coming months did the Transit Security Officers ask what I was doing to which I simply replied “Handing out free meals to anyone who’s hungry.” No objections. The following day, I was back with another box of meals doing the same thing at the same place. I have been doing this 7 days a week now for 2 months with no plans to slow down.
Some people are surprised by my free offering. Others just seem grateful as they accepted. There is always a wide mix of people from homeless to college students to every-day working folks. I will help anyone who responds to my offer with a smile, a nod, or an outstretched hand no matter how they appear. We never know a stranger’s story. A kind word and a smile go a long way, and when you can offer it, a free meal is nice.
Sometimes I’ve been asked if I could help with a few dollars. Occasionally I oblige after quickly observing them and looking to see who else is around me as I take out my wallet, but most of the time, I politely decline.
It once occurred to me to buy meals including drinks at a nearby hotdog stand for a young couple who looked exhausted and were stranded while traveling across our state to Arizona. They had not eaten in a couple of days. My free meal to each of them didn’t seem like enough, so I gave the guy 4 or 5 bucks in addition to letting him keep the change for the hot dogs and drinks I had just bought for them. Sometimes I feel led to do something extra special, above and beyond but most of the time I stay on script.
I think we’ve all been helped at some point in our lives when we really needed it. To me, what I am doing is just being open to helping others, making myself available, and then stepping forward to take action when an opportunity speaks to me. This is just “paying-it-forward” and feels absolutely natural and overwhelmingly wonderful to find myself in a position where I can be of service to others and help, even if they’re asleep.
This has become almost a passion. I feel exhilarated to be doing what I am doing each day. Maybe that is why in addition to delivering meals, I looked for other ways to help with hunger, especially now that we are in a pandemic with so many people having lost their job and the means to consistently provide meals for their families. That’s why there are Food Banks, soup kitchens and churches with food pantries, but more can always be done.
So, for me, in addition to delivering meals, volunteering at the Roadrunner Food Bank in my city of Albuquerque, New Mexico was the other thing I felt I could easily do. It is an emergency food distribution center for the entire state. Once, we packaged 250,000 pounds of food in a single day going out to other food banks, soup kitchens, churches, and mobile food distribution centers. What a difference the helping hands of volunteers make. It can’t be done without them.
These two activities only take 2 1/2 hours out of my day. The meal delivery I do is 7 days a week and including drive-time takes just 30 minutes while volunteering at the food bank is only from Monday through Friday for 2 hours a day.
One person really can make a difference in the lives of many, and who says there’s no such thing as a free lunch? In my world there is. Just ask my people in downtown Albuquerque at the Alvarado Transportation Center.
I sincerely hope this little tale inspires you to do whatever you can, whenever you can, wherever you are for as long as you feel able. You will be blessed even more than those you are helping. I guarantee it!
Why not go online? Just google “volunteer opportunities in (your city)” I’m sure that many things will come up to look over that you can respond to. Volunteering at a food bank in your area is always needed, doesn’t take much time, and is actually fun!
There are so many people out there with hearts who are so glad to be helping others right now, and that is so encouraging. You’ll meet some wonderful people. I hope you join the fun!
NOTE: Tragically, our apartment fire was caused by a woman on oxygen who fell asleep in bed while smoking. This was the third time she started a fire in this way, and just as tragically, it became her last. She died from her wounds in the hospital within 2 weeks of the fire.