San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition

Fam­ily finds home in time for hol­i­day

Dis­placed by fire, mother, 3 kids get help from fund

- By Kevin Fa­gan Family · San Mateo · San Francisco Bay Area · United States of America · Captain America · Zoom Video Communications · Millbrae, CA · Fischer · San Mateo County · Pacifica, CA

At first, it just seemed like some­one was bar­be­cu­ing next door. Adri­anna Wolfe was still won­der­ing what that ba­con­like smell was when she walked into the liv­ing room and no­ticed a haze. Then the TV stopped work­ing. It didn’t stay a mys­tery for long.

“It was smoke — the place was on fire!” Wolfe said, eyes widen­ing at the mem­ory. “I grabbed the kids and ran. I was bare­foot, couldn’t even save my purse. We barely made it out alive.”

That was on the morn­ing of April 27, and by the end of the day the apart­ment com­plex Wolfe and her three chil­dren had called home in Millbrae for 10 years was an ashen husk. Life be­came a cramped hun­ker­down in emer­gency

gov­ern­ment­funded mo­tels. With the coro­n­avirus elim­i­nat­ing her job as a spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion in­struc­tor, Wolfe was be­com­ing des­per­ate, dwin­dling sav­ings be­ing chewed up even af­ter help from food pantries.

“My 6­year­old son kept ask­ing when were we go­ing home, and it was very con­fus­ing to tell him we couldn’t go back,” Wolfe, 34, said. “It was all so hard. I had to find a new place to live, but where? It kept feel­ing like it was hope­less.” Wolfe’s boyfriend, Javier Ramirez, also dis­placed in the fire with his mother in a dif­fer­ent apart­ment, pitched in on the hunt — but to no avail.

Fi­nally the sin­gle mom got three heap­ing help­ings of good luck. One was Samar­i­tan House case man­ager Robyn Fis­cher. An­other was a prop­erty man­ager named Den­nis Sanchez. And the third was the Chron­i­cle Sea­son of Shar­ing Fund.

“Adri­anna’s predica­ment broke my heart,” said Fis­cher, whose non­profit helps low­in­come and home­less peo­ple with hous­ing, food and other needs in San Ma­teo County. “Here she was a sin­gle mom, fight­ing to find some­thing to rent be­fore it was too late. She had a hous­ing rental voucher and had to use it on a new place soon or lose it — she had to find some­thing. We started re­ally work­ing hard on it.”

Fis­cher and Wolfe scoured ev­ery­where, but hous­ing at a time of coro­n­avirus is un­usu­ally tight with ev­ery­one stay­ing put if they can to ride out the plague. Then Wolfe hap­pened upon a list­ing on­line by Sanchez — a three­bed­room bun­ga­low in Paci­fica that just popped up for rent, much big­ger than her de­stroyed apart­ment but within her low price range.

He had un­usual mo­ti­va­tion to lis­ten.

“They were su­per stressed and said they wanted a spot re­ally bad,” said Sanchez. “You get a call like that, and some­times you don’t know if it’s a scam — but some­thing told me this one was OK. I met with the fam­ily and they were re­ally nice. Then when they told me about what hap­pened, I was re­ally pulling for them.”

It turned out Sanchez’s own fam­ily had been burned out of their Davis home years ago. He knew the pain. The des­per­a­tion. The need.

“That kind of thing is truly trau­ma­tiz­ing, so when I re­al­ized I could get them into this rental, I was re­ally pumped,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been a re­ally good fit.”

Be­fore they could move in, though, Wolfe needed to pony up a se­cu­rity de­posit. She didn’t have the cash. So to cover the cost, Fis­cher turned to Sea­son of Shar­ing, which works year­round to pre­vent home­less­ness and hunger in the nine­county Bay Area. All do­na­tions go di­rectly to help peo­ple in need, with all ad­min­is­tra­tive costs cov­ered by The Chron­i­cle and the Wal­ter and Eve­lyn Haas Jr. Fund.

In June, the fam­ily moved into their new home. And this month, the joy of hav­ing what seems like a palace com­pared to their old two­bed­room apart­ment by a noisy train track prac­ti­cally ra­di­ated through the rooms.

Twelve­year­old Elina has her own room at last, with a ta­ble where she can set up her trea­sured makeup kits. Her broth­ers Leonardo, 6, and Gio­vanni, 3, have big beds and a desk, with Cap­tain Amer­ica and Hulk posters on the wall. The house is filled with fur­ni­ture do­nated by non­prof­its and in­di­vid­u­als to them and the 10 other fam­i­lies burned out of the three­story apart­ment com­plex.

And out back is a won­der they never had be­fore in the kids’ lives — a yard with grass and room to run and play and toss toys. Mom planted a gar­den of toma­toes, zuc­chini, squash and lacy green chamomile. There’s a sit­ting area with chairs and a lit­tle ta­ble to catch some fresh air. The whole neigh­bor­hood, a placid stretch of sim­i­lar sub­ur­ban houses, is so quiet it’s al­most eerie at times to ears used to noise.

For now, Wolfe is get­ting by on gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance un­til her work comes back on­line. And even­tu­ally, af­ter the coro­n­avirus ebbs, she wants to study to be a coun­selor — to help peo­ple deal­ing with crises like what she and her chil­dren just en­dured.

“At first when I was look­ing for a new place, I didn’t men­tion the fire be­cause I didn’t want some­one to feel sorry for me, or pity me,” Wolfe said. “And I did get de­nied to a lot of other homes, so I was los­ing hope.

“But then Den­nis asked me why I left my last place, and when I fi­nally told him, it was like magic. He’d gone through the same kind of thing. He un­der­stood. It was like we were be­ing watched over.”

She was sit­ting in the din­ing room of her new home, and looked over to the walls next to the cor­ner ta­ble. One wall held a huge paint­ing of Mother Mary. The other had a sim­i­larly huge paint­ing of the Last Sup­per, with a sign read­ing, “Bless Our Home” over it, and crosses flank­ing each side.

“Those two paint­ings are the only things left af­ter the fire,” Wolfe said qui­etly. “They were watch­ing over us. Our prayers were an­swered.”

The lucky break didn’t re­ally sink in un­til the day she and the kids moved in.

“The whole ex­pe­ri­ence was like a dream,” she said. “I didn’t be­lieve it was real un­til I opened the door. And I just fell to my knees with tears of joy and hap­pi­ness and relief. Fi­nally some­body gave us a home to call our own.”

This Thanksgivi­ng will be the first one the kids will have in a house with a yard they can spill out into. Their new home is much larger than the old apart­ment, so Wolfe is invit­ing some of the other fam­i­lies burned out by the same fire.

“We have more space than ever be­fore, and ev­ery­one who got burned out — there were about 60 of us al­to­gether — has be­come even closer since the fire, so we want to share the hol­i­days,” she said.

A bunch of that will still have to be done by phone and Zoom, be­cause Wolfe fig­ures with COVID­19 con­cerns, she can only have 10 or so peo­ple to­tal. But that’s just this year. Next year she’ll go even big­ger.

“Look­ing back now, you might even say the fire was a beau­ti­ful dis­as­ter,” Wolfe said, tear­ing up. “It was so en­cour­ag­ing to see how the com­mu­nity was so won­der­ful, and this new home is a bless­ing in dis­guise. It’s all so amaz­ing. Beau­ti­ful.”

 ?? Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle ?? Adri­anna Wolfe clasps hands with son Leonardo Ramirez­Wolfe, 6, af­ter he blows out a can­dle on the kitchen counter of their new home in Paci­fica. They lost their home in Millbrae to fire.
Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle Adri­anna Wolfe clasps hands with son Leonardo Ramirez­Wolfe, 6, af­ter he blows out a can­dle on the kitchen counter of their new home in Paci­fica. They lost their home in Millbrae to fire.
 ?? Pho­tos by Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle ?? Gio­vanni Ramirez­Wolfe, 3, runs in the spa­cious back­yard, an amenity of his new home that he and his sib­lings had never be­fore en­joyed. There is room to run and plenty of grass to play on in the back­yard of the fam­ily’s new home in Paci­fica.
Pho­tos by Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle Gio­vanni Ramirez­Wolfe, 3, runs in the spa­cious back­yard, an amenity of his new home that he and his sib­lings had never be­fore en­joyed. There is room to run and plenty of grass to play on in the back­yard of the fam­ily’s new home in Paci­fica.
 ??  ?? Adri­anna Wolfe makes lunch for her chil­dren as her 12­year­old daugh­ter, Elina Ramirez­Wolfe, who now for the first time has her very own room, talks with her mother in the kitchen.
Adri­anna Wolfe makes lunch for her chil­dren as her 12­year­old daugh­ter, Elina Ramirez­Wolfe, who now for the first time has her very own room, talks with her mother in the kitchen.

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