From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Angels All Around

Every hardship; every joy; every temptation is a challenge of the spirit; that the human soul may prove itself. The great chain of necessity wherewith we are bound has divine significance; and nothing happens which has not some service in working out the sublime destiny of the human soul.

Elias A. Ford

Dorothy Wright’s husband, Forrest, shook her hard, “Wake up, Dorothy! Get up! There’s smoke everywhere!”

Dorothy coughed, opened her eyes to a gray haze in their bedroom, bolted upright and screamed, “Get the kids!” She grabbed the phone to call 911 but before she could tell them where they lived the line went dead.

“Oh Lord, help us,” Dorothy prayed as she and Forrest ran in opposite directions to waken their children: Forrest Junior, sixteen; Danielle, fifteen; Leonard, thirteen; Dominique, twelve; Joe, eleven; Anthony, ten; Marcus, eight; Vinny, seven; Curtis, five; Nicholas, three; and Ja-Monney, three. (Ja-Monney is her nephew that they’ve raised since his birth.)

Scared and confused, the children rubbed their eyes and stumbled down the stairs and out the front door. Dorothy counted heads.

“Someone’s missing!” she screamed. “Who? Curtis! Forrest, Curtis is missing!”

Forrest ran back into the house and up the steps as smoke poured out the front door. Five-year-old Curtis, who’d been hiding under his bed, struggled into the smoky hallway when he heard his daddy’s voice. He couldn’t see Forrest in the thick smoke, but he ran right into his daddy’s arms. Forrest grabbed him and tore back down the stairs. Halfway down Forrest fell, sprained his ankle and stumbled outdoors.

Dorothy dashed to the neighbor’s house. The woman who lived there had been studying all night and had just gone to bed when Dorothy banged on the door. The neighbor finally saw the orange glow through the Wright family’s windows and called 911. Within minutes the fire trucks arrived. By now the flames had spread between the walls of the old wood frame house and moved to the second floor.

Neighbors took the children into their homes, but Dorothy couldn’t move. As firefighters slammed their axes into the roof, she stood there and watched her dream evaporate. Everything inside that house went up in flames. Furniture, clothing, housewares, linens, photo albums, cash, jewelry, the only picture she had of her mother who had died when Dorothy was a teenager. Everything was gone.

Our dream, Dorothy thought. How can it end like this? She and Forrest had wanted so much more for their eleven children than was offered in the inner city. They’d just moved to the suburb of New Milford, outside Hackensack, New Jersey, four years earlier. They didn’t want the kids growing up around drugs, alcohol abuse, fighting and gangs. They didn’t want the substandard education or the rundown neighborhoods.

What a blessing it was when they found the big frame house and met Diane, their landlord. They convinced her that they were hard workers and that their children were polite, good kids and that they’d take care of her home. The rent was reasonable and the Wright family moved in.

Now as Dorothy stood there four years later watching their dream evaporate into smoke, all she could think about was two things: Thank you, God, my family is safe! And then, Where will we ever find another house for our big family?

After visiting the hospital to make sure the kids were okay and to get a brace on Forrest’s sprained ankle, Dorothy went directly to Social Services in her blue pajamas and sneakers a neighbor had given her. As she stood in line people looked at her like What’s your problem, lady?

Dorothy didn’t care what she looked like. She was a woman on a mission. The only thing the emergency assistance program could do was to put them into a family shelter back in the inner city. Thirteen people crowded into four tiny rooms.

“It was awful,” Dorothy told a friend. “So much goes on in a shelter like that. People moving in and out every day. Drugs. Yelling. Women getting beat up by boyfriends. No play area. Nothing for the children to do.”

That’s when the guardian angels started to arrive. Dorothy’s friend Lisa, who owns Alfredo’s restaurant, brought dinner for the family every night for four months. Pizzas, spaghetti, garlic bread, fresh salads, lasagna, eggplant Parmesan . . . all the foods kids love. Their neighbors, Jerry and Cynthia, brought a TV to the shelter. Strangers brought brand-new clothes. The kids’ teachers brought school supplies, coloring books, crayons. Other teachers from the New Milford high school, middle school and grammar school had fundraisers for the family.

The whole town adopted the Wright family, and the gifts continued all summer. But Dorothy continued to worry about how they’d ever get out of the shelter and back into the wonderful neighborhood they’d worked so hard to get into four years earlier. How would they ever find another house big enough for their family that they could afford?

One day, one of Vinny’s classmates came to visit. When little Michael Kontomanolis and Vinny saw each other they just hugged and started crying. Michael said, “Mommy, can Vinny come live with us? We have to help him. He’s my friend.”

Michael’s parents, Pauline and Nikkolas, were so touched by the boys’ deep friendship that often that summer they took the Wright children back to their home in their old neighborhood on the weekends.

Dorothy was relieved that her kids could get out of the shelter for awhile, but she said to Pauline and Nick, “You only have two kids. How can you stand so many at once?” Nick would laugh and say, “We love it! It’s like a big party when they come over.”

Then the biggest surprise of all. One day Pauline said, “Dorothy, Nick and I have decided to buy a house in our neighborhood and rent it to you for four years. Then you can buy it from us. We want you to have your own home. We want you to come back to the neighborhood where you belong.”

Dorothy and Forrest couldn’t believe it. Why would this couple who hardly knew them before the fire do such a thing for them? Pauline just smiled and said, “We connect through our hearts, Dorothy.”

Together Dorothy and Pauline found a two-story Cape Cod with six bedrooms, a huge living room, big dining room and a finished basement.

The thirteen members of the Wright family moved in in October, just five months after the fire. On moving day the family opened the doors to discover huge “WELCOME HOME!” banners taped everywhere. The neighbors had supplied the house with everything from toothpaste and toilet paper to laundry soap and paper towels, even makeup for the girls.

One couple, Agnes and Ralph, bought twin beds and pillows for all the children. Others brought quilts, sheets and bedspreads for everyone.

Since then, “Aunt Pauline and Uncle Nikkolas,” as the children call them, have become like brother and sister to Dorothy and Forrest. They cook out together, share things and spend time together. If you couldn’t see color, you’d never know they weren’t related.

Every day as Dorothy watches her children come home from volleyball or basketball practice or a yearbook meeting, she thanks God that they have their dream back. Danielle wants to speak eight languages and go to Harvard to be a lawyer. One of the boys wants to be a fighter pilot. Three of them want to be doctors. Dominique wants to be a nurse. Leonard wants to be a technician for NASA.

Dorothy Wright says it best, “With as many guardian angels as this family has, and with the love we have for each other, the dreams of the entire Wright family will continue for generations.”

Patricia Lorenz

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