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Melissa Allen went through two life-changing events this year: the February morning when a Miami-Dade judge gave her temporary custody of her three grandchildren, and the July night when they all stood in the front yard in their pajamas and watched her North Miami home burn.
Allen, 55, remembers holding her 2-year-old granddaughter in her arms as her neighbors shot water from garden hoses through her broken bedroom window to try and douse a blaze fed by wood floors, perfumes and her clothes. The fire coated her walls with soot and was so hot it melted air conditioning vents.
It also ate up about half her retirement savings, which she’d just invested in a home expansion and renovation project.
“I couldn’t believe it. All the work I’d put into getting it remodeled was now on fire and in flames. I just, I was so overwhelmed,” Allen recalled during an interview. “One of the firefighters said had it not been for my neighbors the house would have burned down completely. I would have lost everything. Another said ‘Don’t worry, your babies are fine. They can’t be replaced.’ But it took me a while to receive that because of all that I’d been through.”
When the year began, Allen, who worked as a Miami-Dade Corrections officer for 25 years, was newly retired, single and ready to begin her next chapter in life. On the advice of friends, she decided to remodel the three-bedroom North Miami home she bought in 1995 and convert a standalone two-car garage into a cottage that she could rent for supplemental income.
I thank God for my life. I thank God for the kids still being here. Even though it’s a struggle, we’re still here.
But life comes at you fast. Allen said domestic and substance abuse problems caught up with her son and his wife, and their kids were placed in her custody. Then five months later, while the kids were in their bedroom, a candle she’d lit in her room in order to pray about an upcoming court hearing tipped over while she was in her kitchen paying bills, starting a fire in her closet.
When the smoke alarm went off, she grabbed her grandchildren and pulled them outside as the neighbors tried to beat back the flames while the North Miami Fire Department rushed to the scene. When her sister went inside the next day to survey the damage, Allen couldn’t bear to go in. Just about everything in the house was destroyed.
For now, Allen and her grandchildren — Alanah, 8, Josiah, 5, and Aliyah, 2 — are living with Allen’s mother and father in their Plantation home, along with Allen’s two sisters, brother-in-law and nephew. They’re sleeping on air mattresses in the living room while she tries to resolve payment from her insurance company and work with a contractor to begin fire remediation and renovations.
For the most part, Allen has made trips back home quick and businesslike as she struggles to return her life to normal. But when she met with the Miami Herald for a Wish Book interview at the house , which still reeks of fire and melted plastic and remains lined in soot, she broke down crying while thinking about her family and the night of the fire.
“It was like purging, releasing everything I’d been through regarding this fire,” Allen said. “I thank God for my life. I thank God for the kids still being here. Even though it’s a struggle, we’re still here.”
Recovery has been complicated.
Allen filed a lawsuit in September against American Security Insurance Co., arguing that her losses are worth $321,685.04. She said for now she and her insurer have only been able to agree upon $69,000 in undisputed damage. In the meantime, she spends her days dropping off and picking up her grandkids at their school in Liberty City and driving them to karate practice in a stuffed 2013 GMC Terrain.
What Allen wants most is for her son and his wife to settle down and prove that their kids can return home. She loves her grandbabies and cherishes her time with them, but knows they’re best off in a stable household with their parents.
In the meantime, she’d also love new home appliances after the old ones were damaged in the fire, and her grandkids have asked her if she can install a sandbox and swing set in her yard where they can play when her house is once again inhabitable. The children also take karate lessons, and she’s looking to enroll Alanah in gymnastics. Plus, they’ve started asking if they can go to Disney World.
“I really feel it’s going to be OK,” said Allen. “Even better than before.”
HOW TO HELP
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email email@example.com. (The most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture, and accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.