February 21, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 28
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School, volunteers aid victims of Blue Hill blaze

Kyle de Beausset

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the Banner's Feb. 21, 2008, edition, the Banner incorrectly reported the phone number that readers can call for information on donating to the Mattapan Fire Victims Fund. Interested parties can call Nampeera Kayondo at 617-669-7856. The Banner regrets the error.

Lisa Grace Wigfall was a scared kid, just 7 years old when her childhood Dorchester home was engulfed in flames. When she thinks back, she can scarcely recall the details of the incident on Bunswick Street — just the fire, and the fear.

“All I remember was my big brother just snatching me off the bed and running down the steps,” she said.

Though her memories of the event itself are blurry, she clearly remembers the assistance her family received after the fire and how deeply it impacted her.

“Without the help my mother had from her family and friends, I’m sure that my mother couldn’t have made it,” Wigfall said.

Decades later, that memory inspired Wigfall — now a teacher at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Grove Hall — to start a fund for the victims of a fire that blazed through a Mattapan triple-decker last November.

Sixteen people, including six children, were injured on Nov. 12 after an electrical short in the first floor of a Blue Hill Avenue home quickly escalated into a three-alarm fire. Several published reports estimated damages to the gutted building at $500,000.

With the support of the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) After School Program at the Trotter School, Wigfall established the Mattapan Fire Victims Fund, raising hundreds of dollars for the affected families.

“I just wanted to do something positive in my community,” Wigfall said, the jubilant voices of students staying after school reverberated through the halls of the Trotter School.

“You always here about the wrongs … you never hear about the positive things. There are good people here at the [school],” she said softly.

Wigfall is a tutor at the BELL After School Program, which aims to “dramatically increase the academic achievements, self-esteem and life opportunities of children living in low-income, urban communities,” according to the BELL Web site.

Administrators, teachers, students and parents have supported Wigfall’s fundraising efforts.

“Each BELL after school site participates in a community service project,” Nampeera Kayondo, the BELL site manager at the Trotter School, explained in an e-mail. “The Trotter School program decided to focus its efforts on the Mattapan fire victims from October to March.”

The first person to donate to the fund was the school’s janitor, Larry Gilberti. Upon seeing a donation receptacle for the Mattapan fire victims, Gilberti donated the money he had in his pocket without question. Parents from the after school program also pitched in, Wigfall said.

“The parents that pick up their kids from after school, they were just incredible,” she said. “I mean, quarters, nickels, dimes, $20 bills, $10 bills … so it was really nice to see that.”

Kayondo and Theresa Wells, the Trotter School’s secretary, have been the backbone of Wigfall’s support at the school, working to give her the necessary administrative backing to get the fund up and running. Wells helped make and put up fliers, and both helped get the rest of the Trotter School community behind the initiative.

Not that they want any credit for their efforts: When the Banner requested interviews with Wells and Kayondo for this story, both deferred, pointing at Wigfall and saying, “She’s the one you want to talk to.”

Shortly after hearing about the fire, Wigfall contacted the Red Cross, who were providing services for several affected families. She was put in touch with Mary Williams, a Mattapan resident who had seen the blaze firsthand and was coordinating a Thanksgiving dinner for the fire victims.

“Being a witness of the fire, my heart just went out to these families,” Williams said. “Not having anything but the clothing on their backs … I was just so hurt [by] what had happened [to] them. So I volunteered my services to help.”

In addition to a Thanksgiving dinner, Williams successfully organized a clothing and toy drive for victims of the fire in time for the holidays. When Wigfall came to Williams for advice on how to fundraise, Williams volunteered her time to help Wigfall, as well.

Cecilia Dos Santos, an immigrant from Brazil, is one of the many fire victims whom Wigfall and Williams have helped. Dos Santos lived with her family on the second floor of the triple-decker — the Nov. 12 fire was the second time in a year that her home had gone up in flames. She was able to escape with her life as her son rushed back and forth to make sure all of her grandchildren were safely removed from the apartment.

Dos Santos called herself “very grateful” for the aid she’s received since the fire.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I mean, you don’t expect that from anybody, you know?”

The assistance may be particularly unexpected to some based on the nation’s slumping economy. Both Wigfall and Williams said they were especially surprised by people’s generosity amid the hard times.

But despite the efforts of those dedicated to helping the victims, Williams said, some still need help.

“They walked away with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” she said. “When something like that drastic happens, yes, you still do need help.”

Thankfully, Dos Santos said, she doesn’t.

“I got enough help,” she said, expressing her gratitude for the assistance she received from her child’s school and the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

For others who may have been less lucky, Wigfall says she’s going to continue her work and keep raising money.

“You never know when it’s going to be you,” Wigfall said, “so I would want someone to do that for me.”

For information on donating to the Mattapan Fire Victims Fund, contact Nampeera Kayondo, the BELL site manager, at 617-669-7856 or via e-mail at nkayondo@bellboston.org.

Nampeera Kayondo, the Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) site manager at the William Monroe Trotter School in Dorchester, supervises children in the BELL After School Program as they eat their afternoon snack. (Kyle de Beausset photo)

Lisa Wigfall (left), Nampeera Kayondo (center) and Theresa Wells (right) sit at the entrance of the William Monroe Trotter School in Dorchester. Led by Wigfall, all three were instrumental in establishing and raising hundreds of dollars for the Mattapan Fire Victims fund. (Kyle de Beausset photo)

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