Brooksville neighbors rally to help family after fire

BROOKSVILLE — Hands are reaching out, even from across the ocean, to come to the aid of Barbara Smith and her son, Dan.

The two of them were burned out of their home at Clover Leaf Farms in northern Brooksville on April 24.

They lost everything but the clothes they were wearing when an electrical malfunction in a shed sparked an explosion of small propane containers that ignited their double-wide mobile home.

Dan Smith, 52, working in the front yard, managed to rescue his 74-year-old mother from the living room couch. Both were left emotionally shaken, but, other than some blisters on Dan Smith's hands, unhurt.

But if the fire left them disoriented, so has, in a good way, the outpouring of good will from the community's residents, some of whom the Smiths don't even know.

"They've been wonderful," Dan Smith said Wednesday, shaking his head in disbelief. "They've all been wonderful. We didn't expect anything. There's a whole lot of outpouring."

Neither the home nor its contents were insured. Barbara Smith, a Clover Leaf resident for more than 20 years, had carried insurance for some years, but dropped it after the home was paid off. Her income is limited to Social Security. Dan Smith's earnings are from outdoor odd jobs around the community such as cleaning gutters, pruning trees and planting landscapes. He came to live and care for his mother eight years ago.

The neighbors have recognized their need.

"Norman is doing more than anyone could expect," Dan Smith said.

He was referring to Norman Hendrickson, who is heading up a committee of neighbors aiming to get mother and son "back on their feet," said Hendrickson, 74.

"We just started out talking about it, just on Sunday." He and a small handful of volunteers began raising money with the sale of hot dogs at a weekly community center gathering that normally attracts only a few. They collected $684, according to Hendrickson's wife, Brigitte, 75.

That's not as many hot dogs as it sounds.

"We didn't charge anything," Hendrickson said, "just a donation. People were putting in $20 bills, $50 bills. One man emptied his pocket; a woman put in a book of (postage) stamps. It was a big turnout."

On Wednesday, at a confirming nod from his wife, Hendrickson reported, "We have about $2,000 in contributions so far."

But one gift has been far bigger.

The Hendricksons knew of a currently empty vacation home owned by Geoff Long, who lives in Wales. Hendrickson called Long and began to relate the fire and the Smiths need of a home. Long interrupted the litany, saying he'd already learned about it on Facebook.

Hendrickson, knowing Long has health problems that may keep him from returning anytime soon to Hernando County, began to talk about the possibility of renting Long's home with an option to buy. Long stopped the caller again, Hendrickson said.

"Don't even talk about renting or buying," Long told him. "It's theirs."

As the Smiths inspected the home after hearing of the offer, Hendrickson said Dan Smith went outside and cried.

The two-bedroom manufactured home is fully furnished. Brigitte intends to provide her "elbow grease" to tidy the inside. Another donor has offered to pressure wash the outside. A handyman has offered to make any necessary small repairs.

Barbara Smith is looking forward to sitting down before a 50-inch Sony TV donated by local resident Ken Harper to watch her beloved Red Sox. "This will be like sitting in the front row," she told son.

The Smiths currently are living in a one-month rental next door to the Hendricksons, so they have some time to collect themselves before the final move.

More than sufficient clothing and food have come the Smiths' way.

"Right now," said Hendrickson, "what the committee is working on is the removal of debris (from the destroyed home lot)." Bids so far have ranged from $8,000 to $3,000, but the hitch is a county requirement that the contractor be licensed and the removal be completed within 60 days, the committee chairman noted.

Also, if the lot isn't cleared within 30 days, the Smiths must pay another month's lot rent of $448. Hendrickson said the park's Brooksville management for owner Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. is cooperating with minimizing fees associated with the cleanup and move.

While some yard tools for Dan Smith's work have been donated, including a brand new hedge trimmer, some pricier items must be replaced. Needs include a leaf blower/vacuum and a pole pruner. "I salvaged a ladder," he said, noting, "The fire guys used it."

Salvaged, too, without a scratch, was the Smiths' 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Dan said he'd washed the car just hours before the fire and backed it into the sunlight to dry. As neighbors gathered then to see the commotion, a woman spied the keys in the ignition and moved the car a block up the street, Dan said.

But burned to their chassis were two golf carts, the usual mode of transportation around this quiet, leafy community with narrow streets. Dan used one of the carts for getting around to jobs.

Ongoing needs aside, Brigitte Hendrickson joined Dan in the marveling of "people helping, just the kindness of people in the park. I've never seen anything like it," said Brigitte, a resident there five years. Joining the Hendricksons on the committee for aid are Holly Wermuth, Jeanett Moore and Jackie Christi.

"It's amazing," Dan said. Of his mother, he added, "She's getting back into the swing of things." In fact, she attended a meeting of the Red Hat Society on Wednesday afternoon.

Responded Brigitte, personifying the character of people at Clover Farms, "Oh, I wish I had a red hat to give her, but I don't have a red one."

Anyone wishing to offer help to the Smiths can contact Hendrickson at (352) 544-0037.

A fundraiser with food and a band is tentatively planned for 5 to 8 p.m. May 19 at Coney Island Drive-In, 1112 E Jefferson St.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Brooksville neighbors rally to help family after fire 05/04/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 4, 2012 9:23pm]

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