Vandergrift fire victims moved by community's generosity

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 11:06 a.m.

It's not self-pity that's made Brian Bielek cry every day since he and four of his neighbors' Vandergrift homes were ravaged on Friday night by a Burns Street fire.

It's not the fact that the blaze destroyed nearly all of his family's earthly possessions in less than three hours. It's not even that he, his wife and 16-year-old daughter can never return to what was once their home.

It's the emotion he's overcome with when he thinks about the thousands of items that have been donated to his family and five others who lost their homes this weekend in house fires.

“It's the greatest thing in the world,” Bielek said. “It's obviously a terrible tragedy, but it's offered a unique opportunity to see the generosity of people in this town. You can't put it into words.”

Hundreds of people from Vandergrift and surrounding communities have rallied around the displaced families since the blaze. More than 10,000 items like food, clothing, electronics and kitchenware have flooded through the doors of Franklin Avenue Church of God in Vandergrift.

Joe Hesketh, a youth minister at the Franklin Avenue church, said he's been “overwhelmed” by the amount of support he's seen from the community since orchestrating the effort to support the fire's victims.

“It's breathtaking,” said Hesketh, 21. “Vandergrift isn't known for being a very affluent community, but there are people coming in here donating boxes of items with the tags still on them.”

Under Hesketh's direction, the church has collected more than $2,000 worth of Giant Eagle and Wal-Mart gift cards. Hesketh said he's specifically requesting the gift cards to avoid having to route checks through the Salvation Army, which is required by law and prolongs the process.

“We want them to get the money as soon as possible,” he said. “That's not to say monetary donations aren't appreciated.”

R.J. Hesketh, Joe's older brother and the Franklin Avenue Church of God's senior pastor, will open the church everyday this week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for drop-off donations.

He said the pace at which donated items are arriving will probably exceed the storage space available to the families. That's why he and his brother will host a rummage sale on Jan. 11 in the Franklin Avenue church for the items the families can't keep. All the proceeds, he said, will directly benefit the victims.

There will be a rally 1 p.m. Wednesday in St. Gertrude Parish on Franklin Avenue to organize the rummage sale.

The sale will precede a larger benefit dinner that Joe Hesketh has scheduled for Jan. 12. He's planning for about 1,500 guests at the dinner, with each participant paying for a plate as desired, so long it exceeds a set minimum. He is seeking about 40 volunteers to help organize the event.

“With all the support I've seen so far, I think it'll be successful,” he said. “I've seen kids come in here with their Christmas gifts to give to the kids who lost theirs in the fire.”

Joe and R.J. Hesketh extended their help on Sunday to include Beth Palmer of Harrison, who lost her house along Freeport Road to a fire this weekend. R.J. Hesketh said that's only possible because of the “overwhelming generosity” that's been displayed by Vandergrift residents in the effort.

“I'm really proud of the way the community has responded,” he said. “It speaks to the small town character that Vandergrift's always had. It's not strangers that need our help right now, it's family.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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