Cindy Organtini poses with donated clothes in the burned-out home of longtime friends.
Cindy Organtini poses with donated clothes in the burned-out home of longtime friends. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

A canceled party, an awful fire, a new purpose

In Gulfport, woman celebrates her birthday by helping old friends.
Published May 4, 2020
Updated May 15, 2020
In Gulfport, woman celebrates her birthday by helping old friends.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

An occasional series.

The night before her 64th birthday, Cindy Organtini lay in bed and scrolled through recent news on her phone.

It was March 24. The first Pinellas County resident had died from COVID-19. U.S. senators fought about how to protect the economy from the worst stock market plunge since the Great Recession. States and cities across the country issued stay-at-home orders.

Organtini’s sunset beach birthday party with friends was called off. An uncut, 7-inch coconut cake from Publix sat in the fridge.

At around 10:00, she opened Gulfport’s neighborhood page on Facebook.

There was a live video of a tiny house on fire.

“That looks like Pat’s house,” she thought.

She looked closer.

It was.

***

She jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and raced to the car. The main road was blocked, but she knew Pat Dunham and her husband, Frank, would be in the alley. She jumped out, ran to her old friends and watched the flames.

Just before midnight, as firefighters sprayed the last embers, she noticed the time and turned to tell Pat that it was almost her birthday.

But Pat’s face was stone.

Organtini went home, crawled into bed smelling like smoke and fell asleep talking to God. She wondered how so much can be taken so quickly. She whispered a thank you for her health, her community, for the people that she loves. She apologized for pitying herself.

“All I could think was I felt so very grateful, while I felt so very sad for Pat.”

She woke up with a single thought; “I’m celebrating me, to be able to help her.”

When she got back to the remains of the house, Pat and Frank were in the same clothes. She put the word out, in texts and social media, and drove around picking up donations.

“He has 4E wide feet, as big as Fred Flinstone, and she is a tiny little woman. I didn’t even try to guess what would fit, but we got a ton of clothes. Everyone was: ‘Cindy, come this way, meet me in the alley. I’ll drop the clothes where you can get them.’ ”

One person donated a bed. People gave cash. A woman offered an unfurnished room to share.

The clothes that didn’t fit went to St. Vincent de Paul. The bed went to the unfurnished room, and that went to a homeless woman Organtini had never even met.

That day, she said, she saw so much kindness.

“It was more like the old days. That’s my birthday gift. Not that I’m thinking her tragedy is any kind of a good thing, but, yeah, I am just so moved by it all.”

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help Pat and Frank Dunham.

Do you know a Helper? Contact jpendygraft@tampabay.com.

Read other stories in this series:

Butcher John Riesebeck is embracing a family tradition

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