Afire devastated the Royal Suite Apartments in Anchorage this past winter. Three people died, many escaped with only the clothes on their backs and at least 30 households were left without homes.
The experience of escaping the February fire only added to the turmoil and despair. Not long after, the Anchorage Home Builders Association’s endowment board held its quarterly meeting.
“The fire had just happened, and we always talk about, ‘Is there a need right now?’ ” said Nikki Giordano, AHBA executive officer. “Typically, members bring something to the table, with information and details, and then the group decides.”
This time, AHBA committed to helping residents displaced by the fire. Within days, the AHBA Care Endowment provided $500 to each household, with a total donation of $20,000.
“They were not expecting anything from anyone,” Giordano said. “Some said they could get food and restart their lives. They said they would make that $500 go a long way. They were working, some had kids, and some of them had stories of escape that were awful. It was a traumatic experience for them, and talking to them really brought it home to some of us.”
Helping those in need is exactly why AHBA started the endowment fund after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The idea was that members would donate money into the endowment every year, sustaining its ability to contribute to the community over the long haul.
AHBA includes about 230 members, including builders and those associated with the building industry, such as suppliers, contractors and agents. The builders tend to contribute based on houses sold, so the amount donated each year depends in part on the housing market, but the endowment hands out money every season each year.
The Care Endowment supports those in immediate need, like the former residents of the Royal Suite Apartments, as well as those participating in ongoing programs, such as high school students who receive scholarships for college, university or trade or vocational schools.
The endowment also supports the Shoebox Program, now in its 15th year. The program hands out backpacks with gifts, toys and necessities to a thousand Anchorage students every December. AHBA coordinates the effort and helps drive support by encouraging contributions and engagement from other organizations, including the Associated General Contractors of Alaska.
Nonprofits also apply for support from the Care Endowment, Giordano said. This year, the AHBA endowment gave $5,000 to Kids’ Corps for its summer program and $5,000 to the King Career Center for its SkillsUSA program.
Making homes safe and educating homeowners combines several AHBA interest areas, so the endowment board also committed to buying 500 carbon monoxide detectors to donate to the Anchorage Fire Department for distribution.
The donation followed several carbon monoxide poisoning cases in Alaska, including one that led to the death of a teenager and the hospitalization of seven others in Anchorage.
Battalion Chief James Dennis, the hazardous materials coordinator for the fire department, does not recall a donation of carbon monoxide detectors before.
“This was uncommon,” Dennis said. “It gave the AFD a chance to educate the community on the local news stations, in the fire stations when handing the detectors out, and in their homes when we installed them.”
The department gave away 300 detectors at fire stations and installed 200 more when at homes that needed them. People often forget or overlook detectors because buying or testing them can get lost in day-to-day life, Dennis said.
“I come from a long line of firefighters,” he said. “Growing up, I remember our home fire drills and smoke detector tests in the middle of the night. Now my children experience the same type of awareness training. I can imagine that it would be difficult for people to ponder a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas lurking in their home.”
Yet they must because even a low battery can mean not knowing about a fire or high carbon monoxide levels in time to escape or call for help. The detector, Dennis said, gives people and fire crews a fighting chance to respond in time to minimize harm.
The $10,000 AHBA gave toward carbon monoxide detectors did much more than put working detectors in hundreds of homes. It also allowed firefighters to talk to people in person and through the media, reminding thousands about a device that can save lives.
Dawnell Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.