McHENRY – Kelly Baehne stood in the northwest corner of the Chauncey H. Duker School gym, her expression a bit dazed as she surveyed the room.
It was 11 a.m. Saturday, midway into what was supposed to be a two-hour collection of clothing, money and other necessities for three District 15 families who lost everything in a downtown fire in McHenry on Thursday.
Throughout the gym, about 125 people carried and sorted ever-mounting piles of clothing, toys and more. Everywhere one looked, paper and plastic grocery bags, garbage bags, even repurposed diaper boxes brimmed with sweaters, socks, pants, jackets ... someone even delivered a water bed.
“I’m just shaking,” said Baehne, who coordinated the volunteer effort. “This is just so awesome.”
As Baehne talked about the district’s efforts to help the Melendez, Diaz and Alcantara families, including six children and six adults, contributor after contributor walked through the gym entranceway. Every few minutes, one or two stopped to hand Baehne a $100 bill, some $20s, assorted gift cards, or to inquire about writing a check.
Baehne said some proceeds from the overwhelming response to Saturday’s effort would go toward employees of Windy City Wings and the inhabitants of two other upstairs apartments also destroyed in the fire. She said the other inhabitants’ names were unknown as of Saturday, but that coordinators would attempt to locate and help them, too.
There were five apartments atop Windy City Wings, a restaurant and bar at the southeast corner of Green and Elm streets, which, as of Saturday, was a pile of timbers and debris rising above neighboring rooftops. Only an east-side wall and exterior staircase seemed unscathed.
Ten-year-old Sheili Alcantara is one of the children who was forced to flee on the cold and windy night. The Duker School fifth-grader smiled, though, as she pointed out her teacher, Mrs. Nellessen, among the numerous volunteers helping to gather and sort items continually streaming into the gym.
“I was doing my homework and the lights turned on and off, and then we felt a vibration,” she said of the night of the fire, which occurred about 9 p.m. “And then my neighbor knocked on the door and said there was something bad outside … and we had to get out really fast.”
With word of Saturday’s effort having quickly spread via local media and social networking, people began arriving at Duker an hour before the drive’s scheduled 10 a.m. start time Saturday. They still were arriving at 1 p.m., an hour after it was set to close.
“Do you need some help with that?” asked 8-year-old Brayden Dufield of Cub Scout Pack 131. Standing along the sidewalk outside Duker School, Dufield addressed McHenry resident Ellen Holst and her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, who were carrying four white garbage bags bulging with children’s clothes and toys.
Near the north wall of the gym, Dionne Leonhardt of Mount Prospect sorted through an ever-growing pile of women’s and men’s clothing.
Leonhardt said she has family in McHenry, and she just wanted to help.
“I was just thinking about Christmas and the kids,” she said. “It still makes me choke up.”
District 15 school board member Patrick Miller, who also is president of the McHenry Pigtail League, was among the many residents on hand to help Saturday, as were 18 of 22 girls from two girls softball traveling teams.
“I think people right now in the community, after what happened in Connecticut, people are so horror struck,” he said, referring to the Sandy Hook shootings. “That’s obviously a totally different tragedy, and I mean no offense, but I think people needed a way to pick up their Christmas spirit.
“They saw that tragedy, and they couldn’t do anything about it,” he continued. “And then we had a tragedy in our own back yard, and they could do something about it.”
Other fundraising efforts for the fire victims occurred over the weekend at The Gambler on Green Street in McHenry. Donations also were being taken at the McHenry Flea Market on Elm Street.
Baehne said no more items are being requested, as volunteers were swamped with donations Saturday. However, volunteers are needed to help sort and box items, and those willing to help are asked to gather at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Duker School. Items that cannot be used by the affected families will be offered first to District 15 families in need and then to other nonprofit groups, Baehne added.
Officials of the McHenry Township Fire Protection District have said the Windy City Wings fire at 1266 N. Green St. was one of two caused by downed power lines Thursday night.
Fire also destroyed an unoccupied home in the 3000 block of South Pool Street near McHenry.
How to help
What: Volunteers needed
When: 10 a.m. Wednesday
Where: Chauncey H. Duker School, 3711 Kane Ave., McHenry
Project: Sort and pack items collected for those who lost homes and belongings during Thursday night’s fire in McHenry.
Note: No more items requested; volunteers only