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Following fire, family sees neighbors' generosity

Offers of shelter, food and other help pour in after Melville Avenue blaze

When Palo Alto resident Jackie Yu discovered fire spitting out from under her dishwasher on the morning of Aug. 3, she was also to discover something else: the kindness of her neighbors.

Yu and her tenant, Jennifer Warren, a nurse at Stanford Hospital, emerged from the stucco ranch house physically unscathed but in shock.

Yu's family — Charles, Michael and Caterina Yuan — were not at home at the time.

Within minutes, the 800 block of Melville Avenue was filled with emergency vehicles and concerned neighbors.

"Everyone came out of their houses," Yu's next-door neighbor Carroll Harrington said. "My neighbor was in his bathrobe. Another neighbor from down the street who didn't know anyone immediately came and offered her house because she was going to Portland."

A family renting the house across the street from the Yuan family had just moved in Saturday. On Sunday, they were out offering their home and freezer to the Yuans, according to Stacey Olgado, another neighbor.

Towards the end of the day, Donald Olgado and his children had collected upwards of 40 e-mail addresses from neighbors who were willing to give the family shelter, food, clothing and services.

"The response from neighbors was pretty overwhelming," he said.

Warren, the Yuans' tenant, had only recently moved into the area. But she, too, was met with generosity.

"In a matter of hours one of the neighbors offered her home to me," Warren said. "She opened up her home to me without a backwards glance, and she had never met me."

Fire officials estimated the fire caused $300,000 in damage.

Some residents in the Community Center neighborhood, which includes Melville, are hoping that the fire might be a catalyst to jumpstart community-building.

"We're not a really tight neighborhood," Harrington said. "I have wanted to start a Neighborhood Watch list for years but didn't know many people."

"Everyone who is adjacent knows each other pretty well," Stacey Olgado added, "but once you get out of the three-to-four-house range relationships aren't as strong."

Rick Ferguson, president of the Community Center Neighbors' Association, said that his area may not be as prepared for emergencies and disasters as some Palo Alto neighborhoods are. But he expressed hope that the silver lining of the fire might be a shift in that direction.

Yu — taking a break from dealing with insurance companies and putting her family's life back together last week — agreed.

"I do not think that currently our neighborhood has an emergency-response system in place," she said. "The response to our crisis was spontaneous ... from our neighbors. I believe it would be a great idea to form an emergency-response system."

Despite their spontaneous actions, the Melville neighbors all insisted they are no different than anyone else. They only did what any neighbors would do.

Warren and the Yuans might quibble about that.

"We never could have imagined something as unexpected as this to happen," Yu said, "but we received so much love, care and support from many of the neighbors that we do not know well or never met before. It is heart-warming and beyond our expectation."

"I have never been in a community like the one in Palo Alto," Warren said. "I came from South Carolina, and I can't imagine the people in the communities where I have lived being that generous that fast anywhere."

"I am so thankful that this is the place I was to experience such an event," she added. "I can't imagine where I'd be without the community support. These are good people."

Related stories:

• Dishwasher fire damages historic Palo Alto home


Like this comment
Posted by Long Ago
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 13, 2008 at 3:47 pm

We can remember a time when neighbors taking care of one another was the norm.

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