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Community supports Vandergrift fire victims

| Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
The hand of server and volunteer James Paullet of Vandergrift, left, reaches to take a plate of spaghetti as fellow volunteers Diana Dowling, right, of Apollo, Debbie Gamble, second right, and Andrea Sinka, both of Vandergrift, prepare another plate to keep up with the high amount of attendance during a Vandergrift fire dinner/auction and raffle to raise money for fire victims, Sunday, at St. Gertude's Church in Vandergrift, January 12, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Tommy Scanga, left, of Tommy's Catering, and Dustin Hall of Vandergrift dip into the fourth vat of spaghetti sauce during a dinner/auction and raffle to raise money for fire victims on Sunday, at St. Gertude's Church in Vandergrift, January 12, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Volunteer Sadie Shirley, 6, of Vandergrift helps out by serving drinks during a dinner/auction and raffle to raise money for fire victims on Sunday, at St. Gertude's Church in Vandergrift, January 12, 2013. The young volunteer is a kindergarten student in the Kiski Area School District whose parents Christina and Josh Shirley are both firefighters at the Vandergrift No. 2 station.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Fire victim Carrie Bielek, left, whose Vandergrift home was destroyed by fire on December 29, her Mother Dorothy Tumas and Erin Tumas, at the dinner/auction and raffle to raise money for the fire victims, on Sunday, at St. Gertude's Church in Vandergrift, January 12, 2013.

Thousands of Vandergrift residents continued to rally around five families whose homes were razed on Dec. 29 by a fast-spreading fire.

In the two weeks following the Burns Street fire, residents of Vandergrift and surrounding communities have donated thousands of items of food, clothing, kitchenware and electronics. The outpouring culminated during the weekend with two community events that generated thousands of dollars for the victims.

Brian Bielek, whose house was destroyed in the fire, said the community support has been “truly overwhelming” and the cornerstone on which he and his family will rebuild from the ashes.

“It's more than you could ever expect or put into words,” he said. “It's made everything 100 times better. We can't thank the people of this town enough.”

Neighbors first gathered Saturday for a rummage sale at Franklin Avenue Church of God. Brothers Joe and R.J. Hesketh, youth minister and senior pastor, respectively, collected about 15,000 items at the Vandergrift church.

After each family left with two or three car loads, Church of God sold the leftover items for which the families had no need or space. The sale raised about $2,500, Joe Hesketh said, with all proceeds directly benefitting the families.

The church will donate leftover items to the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and the North Apollo Church of God Kids' Closet. The families left with about 5,000 Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle gift cards, valued between $10 and $100.

On Sunday, about 1,100 people were in and out of St. Gertrude Parish along Franklin Avenue for a benefit dinner and auction. Between food sales, a Chinese auction for 50 gift baskets and a 50-50 raffle, the event raised about $12,000, said Hesketh, who organized the event.

“The turnout's been incredible,” Hesketh, 21, said. “I knew it was possible, but not to this extent. I'm astounded and humbled at the way Vandergrift has embraced these families.”

G & G Restaurant, Five Starr Catering and Tommy's Catering provided the food, which was paid for entirely by community donations.

Tommy Scanga of Tommy's Catering said the food servicers supplied about 3,000 meatballs, 3,000 cookies, 15,000 rolls and 5,000 pounds of uncooked pasta, which can serve about 15,000 people. Plates were priced at $6 for children and $10 for adults. All leftover food will be donated to churches throughout the area, Hesketh said.

Scanga not only supplied the food, but served it, donating more than 25 hours of his time over the weekend.

“Everyone has to do their part to get these families through this,” he said. “It's what we do in Vandergrift. We're all one group; it's a family effort.”

Tammy Trentin of Jackson Street was among the 1,100 or so dinner participants. Like many others, she didn't know the affected families personally, but wanted to be a part of the community effort.

“I was devastated when I heard about it, especially it being the holidays,” Trentin said. “When you live in a small town like Vandergrift, it's expected of you to help out. It's what you do.”

Vandergrift Council President Brian Carricato echoed Trentin's sentiment.

“At the end of the day, there aren't a whole lot of places that would rally around these families like our community has,” he said. “It's wonderful, absolutely wonderful.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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