When Shawna Santos dozed off in front of her television the night of Dec. 7, she wasn't dreaming of cramming into a two-bed motel room with her four children. When she awoke to a smoke-filled house, the cramped living quarters was the reality Santos and her family would soon face.
Charitable organizations and community members have stepped up to help make the transition less stressful for the Cape Girardeau family left homeless during the holiday season.
The Cape Girardeau Fire Department responded to a fire at Santos' home at 617 N. Spanish St. around 2 a.m. and had the blaze under control after 15 minutes. Although the flames were contained quickly, the damage was extensive. Santos' home and all of the family's belongings were destroyed by the fire, which was started by faulty wiring in the home's heater.
"I woke up the next morning to brush my hair, and I didn't even have a brush," Santos said.
Shortly after the fire, the Red Cross stepped in and gave Santos a prepaid debit card with $1,017 on it. With the money, the family has stayed in two area motels, and Santos has been diligently hunting for both a new home and job. Both searches have been successful, Santos said, noting that she has leads on several houses and an interview for a counseling position today. Santos holds a degree in counseling from Southeast Missouri State University.
In addition to the money, clothes and toys the family received from the Red Cross and Salvation Army, Santos, 28, said she has received several offers of furniture and other items from the community. While she appreciates the generosity, Santos said the experience has been hard but humbling.
"When you've been independent for this long, it's tough to ask others for anything," said Santos, who said she's been financially independent for nearly 10 years.
The fire occurred two days after Santos' oldest children, Kaylynn, 9, and Rosalina, 7, had their school lives rearranged when a fire caused Blanchard Elementary to close indefinitely. Kaylynn and Rosalina said they did not want to talk about what had happened to their school and home.
Despite its own problems, Blanchard has helped the girls by supplying school supplies, Santos said.
"The school knows what we're going through because they're going through it, too," she said.
Santos' children, including Venancio, 5, and 7-month-old Layana, have stayed positive and remain excited at the prospect of getting new toys and clothes.
Santos said she is unsure what's in store for Christmas, but said she would like to move into a new house -- preferably a three-bedroom one that costs $450 a month -- before the holiday so the family can put up a new tree. Santos said she is not sure about gifts for the children, but it doesn't matter.
"We don't care about material stuff, we're just glad we made it out," she said.
The Santoses were not the first family affected by fire the Red Cross has helped this holiday season. In the past month, the organization has helped 15 families that lost their homes to fire, executive director Cheryl Klueppel said.
This holiday season, the Salvation Army will help roughly 500 families by supplying them with holiday gifts and utility assistance, Major Beth Stillwell said. The number of families is up this year because of the economy, Stillwell said.
Santos said she would like to find a house with a large backyard for Venancio, who vigorously runs around the motel room and hops on its beds. While the conditions have not been ideal, Santos said her family will become stronger as a result of the fire.
"It's going to make us appreciate things a lot more," she said. "We won't take anything for granted now."
617 N. Spanish St., Cape Girardeau, MO