"People who I have never seen and never will see and never will know have helped me.''
Thelma Louise Baker
ST. PETERSBURG — Thelma Louise Baker is smiling.
Despite some problems of their own, members of the community have come to her aid, rebuilding the two-bedroom wood-frame home destroyed by fire last fall.
In recent weeks, a 37-year-old businessman from Palmetto dug the foundation and put up walls. His friend's St. Petersburg company will handle the framing, trusses and stucco. A Clearwater firm has promised to install electric wiring, while a mom-and-pop air conditioning company will install an "almost new" system.
A Largo business will provide cabinets and plumbing. Residents at a St. Pete Beach condo have presented gift cards to a hardware store, and an art collector has replaced the religious painting Baker turned to every morning in prayer.
As she sat on an old chair beside her rising new home last week, the 78-year-old woman beamed.
"People who I have never seen and never will see and never will know have helped me,'' she said.
The great-grandmother is a different person from the one who kept vigil last October in front of the burned-out shell of the home she had bought a decade earlier. The fire that roared through the house early in the morning of Oct. 17 had been started by a candle left unattended by a mentally ill son.
He was one of several relatives who depended on Baker, who cleaned homes for 26 years, for a roof over their heads.
Baker has been living at her daughter's Coquina Key home and said she is looking forward to moving back to her own place. In the months since the fire, tragedy has struck twice. Her ailing brother-in-law, one of the relatives she cared for, died of a heart attack. The son whose candle caused the fire was in a bicycle accident on March 1 and remains at Bayfront Medical Center.
"The Lord doesn't give you more than you can bear,'' Baker said.
She paid cash for the house and garage apartment at 927 10th Ave. S after the Pinellas County School District bought her previous home and those around it to build Campbell Park Elementary School. The $56,000 two-bedroom home was insured for about $64,000, but a contractor estimated it would cost $160,000 to repair. Relatives gutted the badly burned house, hoping to save money on construction, but a structural engineer said the property had to be demolished.
Baker's daughter, Ernestine McCrone, 51, who owns a flower shop, decided to approach her godson, Dwayne Wilson. Wilson, whose company was one of the contractors for the Sweetbay supermarket in Midtown, agreed to help.
Work began about a month ago, when Wilson, who lives in Palmetto, and two employees from his DankBea company started digging the foundation. They also put up block walls and poured concrete. They will return to do the stucco. Wilson, 37, estimates that it's about an $80,000 job, but he's doing it at a deep discount.
"I wanted to help her out,'' he said. "You can't look for money every time you do something. You do it from the heart.''
Wilson asked a friend, Rocco Sanders, of Roccorp Construction, to help. Sanders recently completed the 7,000-square-foot Midtown home of Amscot Financial vice president Deveron Gibbons.
"I have guys who need work anyway and I went ahead and said I'd do it,'' he said. His employees will be paid for their labor, but Sanders, 39, who will supervise the framing, trusses and drywall, is donating his services.
"It all pans out,'' Sanders said, adding that shortly after he committed to help Baker he was offered three other jobs.
"You just have to do it on faith and it will come. You reap what you sow,'' he said.
Others offered their help after a story about Baker's loss appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.
Charlie Spitzer, an owner of A. Randy's Electric in Clearwater, knew instantly that he wanted to help.
"I felt sorry for the lady because of her age and she worked all her life and paid for that house. I went through some hard times myself, so I know what it's like,'' said Spitzer, 52, who will rewire the house for free.
Nancy Braamse, who owns Olde World Cabinetry in Largo with her husband, John, said her company will donate all the cabinets, hardware and plumbing fixtures for the new home and help with the countertops.
"My husband and I have been blessed by having a successful business and our customers have been good to us and we thought we could help someone out. Everyone deserves to have a nice home,'' Nancy Braamse said.
John Ray, 55, of J Ray & Sons Air Conditioning in St. Petersburg, said he understands Baker's plight.
"I'm going through rough times too, so I know what it's like,'' said Ray, who will spend two days with his sons installing an air conditioning system in Baker's home.
Money and a divine gift
Other readers collected money to help Baker rebuild her home. Residents of the Constellation building at the Yacht and Tennis Club of St. Pete Beach donated about $600, president Mona Kay Beldin said.
"We had a big box of chocolates and two Visa cards that were activated so they could go to Home Depot and buy what they wanted,'' she said.
Baker and her daughter were grateful.
"The hugs. ... It was so special,'' Beldin said. "I was on a high for a week.''
In the weeks after the fire, Baker's daughter and a granddaughter talked about what the elderly woman had lost in addition to her modest home. There was the dress she had worn to a grandchild's high school graduation, priceless family photographs, and coins she'd been collecting for half a century. When Baker spoke, though, it was only about one thing, a print of Jesus and his 12 disciples. She said she looked at it first thing every morning as she raised her hands in praise.
Gregory Day, an art collector, decided to replace the copy of The Last Supper.
"I found one in New York, bought it and had it shipped down and gave it to her,'' he said of the oil reproduction. He also gave Baker a check for new appliances.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.