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Community bands together for fire victims

By CHUCK BALLARO - | Dec 30, 2020


When Michelle Gilles’ home on Washington Drive caught fire and burned on Dec. 18, her family, including her teenage daughter, was left with nothing.

It left Gillis in tears just talking about it, especially how it has impacted her daughter.

Yet in less than 24 hours, the North Fort Myers community, as well as many others from outside the area, came to the rescue of this family, showing once again that whenever someone in this area faces disaster, the community comes together to help.

“Everybody banded together and showed just how strong our community is,” said family friend Marcus Haupt. “Our community, being the community we are, gave anything they had in donations for a member of our North Fort Myers family.”

The North Fort Myers Fire Control and Rescue District responded to the blaze just after midnight on Friday, by which time the house was engulfed in flames.

The fire was believed to have been started by a heat lamp on the family’s back porch. All three adults made it out safely as did one dog but another dog, two cats and two squirrels did not.

Michelle said she heard glass shatter and thought it was her cat knocking something over.

“I went in and there were flames coming in through the back window. It was a glass door that shattered,” Michelle said. “My boyfriend tried to get the fire extinguisher in the kitchen, but the door was where the flames were coming in.

Michelle went to get her cell phone to call 911, but there was black smoke everywhere. She saw her dog in a cage and was going to get it out of the house.

“I was two feet away from it and the latex paint was burning and caught fire on my arm and the melted carpet was sticking to my feet,” Michelle said as her voice began to crack. “The heat and the flames were rushing upon me and I had to run out the front door.”

Within, 10 minutes, the home was completely engulfed. Even the truck in the driveway burned. Michelle received second and third-degree burns on her lower body and went to the hospital.

She lost everything, from the furnishings to the photos and other personal items, which can never be replaced.

Perhaps the victim most impacted was her 18-year-old daughter, Rayne, who is on the autism spectrum. Everything in her room was set up for her needs. When the fire happened and the instability hit, it hit her hard.

“I don’t know how she perceived the fire because she can’t get out how she feels and what’s going on,” Gillis said emotionally. “It’s tough to watch her and see everything in my life gone.”

Last Saturday, the closing ceremonies of the North Fort Myers Pop Warner football and cheer season became a fundraiser for the Gillis family, which has been involved in the program for nine years, with Michele’s granddaughter involved the last four.

Literally hours after the fire, Gillis, who had come to the event in a wheelchair, and her family had clothing, food, furniture, toys and other items donated to them.

“They are a part of our football family. They brought their daughters through and we just wanted to let them know we love you and care for them,” Haupt said.

And that wasn’t all.

Another family offered Gillis their furniture once their home was rebuilt, and an anonymous family donated $5,000 toward the rebuilding effort.

The Tommy Bohanon Foundation was also accepting donations on the family’s behalf. Bohanon is a former NFL player who has returned home to help the community. Other non-profits came up big as well, with one donating $2,500.

One local business donated money while another offered the use of their RV, a truck and cash. The fire department and Red Cross donated items, and many others donated what they could afford, no matter how small, for a family many of them don’t even know.

“That’s our community. They see a need and the whole community comes together. In an hour we got 250 pounds of clothing and household items,” said Steve Brown, athletic director for the Pop Warner program. “We get a bad rap for being a rural, lower-income community, but we’re family first and I don’t think you’d see this anywhere else.”

Gillis and her family are staying with her boyfriend’s mother, so there is not much space for them to put everything they have received. She has lived in the area pretty much her entire life, the vast majority of it in North Fort Myers.

Gillis said she doesn’t know where they will live or when she will be able to return to work because of her burns. Her boyfriend, a commercial fisherman, is unable to get on the water at this time.

Gillis was raised in Suncoast Estates at a time when everybody knew everybody else, took care of each other and it was like a family.

She said she has been overwhelmed by the support she and her family have received from everyone, many of whom she has never met.

“It’s always been our home and part of our lives. All three of my kids and granddaughter were born here. I’ve known so many people and they’ve all been so wonderful,” Gillis said. “So many people have come forward who we don’t even know and we’re so grateful for the compassion everybody has given us. It’s been unbelievable.”