March 22--More than a week after a fire left an Elk Mound family of nine homeless and without possessions, Paula Gunderson and her eight children still are living in a hotel.
Thanks to others' generosity, the small rooms are full of donated toys and clothes that still need to be sorted. Some of the children rested on beds watching television cartoons Friday while others laughed and played with the toys.
The family is taking their situation day by day, Gunderson said.
"It's pretty hard, you know," she said. "Every day they wake up and somebody remembers something else that burned in the fire. Particularly the younger kids have a harder time with it."
The Elk Mound rental home where the Gundersons lived caught fire at about 1:30 a.m.March 11.
The family was trapped on the house's second story, cut off from escape by smoke and flames.
However, Gunderson's 15-year-old son, Malachi, jumped from the home's roof and ran to a neighbor's house, where he procured a ladder he used to help the rest of his family escape the burning structure.
The family was safe and many of their belongings were salvageable until the fire reignited later that night, burning the rest of the house and the family's possessions.
Since that day Gunderson and eight of her 10 children (two of her offspring are grown), ranging in age from 18 months to 15 years, have shared two cramped rooms at the AmericInn Hotel & Suites just west of Eau Claire.
"In general they're not like choking each other or anything, so we're all good," Gunderson said with a laugh, noting it's been tough sharing such close quarters.
She is busy taking care of her children and dealing with other responsibilities related to the fire
"Unfortunately there's a lot of business to take care of, such as paperwork and phone calls, different meetings, different people," she said, adding she also has been slowly going through donations.
The response of people from Elk Mound and surrounding communities donating to the family's plight has been "heartwarming" and "very special," Gunderson said.
People have given clothes, household items and money.
A living room set, TV, beds, table and chairs, dishes and plenty of toys, clothes and shoes were donated, said Amy Hay, who helped coordinate the donation effort.
Hay is a member of Cornerstone Apostolic Church in Elk Mound. The congregation has been collecting donations for the family.
"I kind of expected people to give clothing, but what we were really hoping for was the furniture and the bigger items -- stuff that was going to cost money to replace," a grateful Hay said.
Jean Tworek, branch manager at Independence Bank in Elk Mound, where a fund was set up to collect monetary donations, said people have been "very generous" with donations for the Gundersons.
In addition to donations, many people have given the family much-appreciated home-cooked meals, Gunderson said.
"It's harder to get (home-cooked food) in a hotel and obviously we can't afford to eat out every day," she said.
Malachi's heroic rescue captured the attention of state Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, and state Rep. Tom Larson, R-Dunn County town of Colfax, who also have reached out to the family.
"I don't know if I'm letting the cat out of the bag or not, but they want to recognize Malachi," Gunderson said, noting it's not every day you see a boy with "such a heart."
Tough road ahead
While response to the family's plight has been positive, the Gundersons still have a long way to go, including finding a more permanent place to live.
The American Red Cross covered the cost of the first five days in the hotel, and renters' insurance is paying that expense now, Gunderson said. But she doesn't know how long that will be the case.
"This is definitely a blessing to be able to have (the hotel rooms) because the other option is living with somebody or sleeping in the van," she said.
Finding a new home has been a challenge, Gunderson said.
"I'd be renting, so a lot of people don't want to rent to you if you have a large family," she said. "With a lot of kids, (property owners) see a lot of damage."
Besides a house, Gunderson said the family still needs what she deemed "the impossibles," specifically a new vehicle.
"One of the biggest financial losses is the car," she said. "The good car burned. What I drive now, the transmission is just about falling out of, so there's that."
Gunderson recently had pulled the children out of school, about a week before the fire, in favor of home-schooling. She said she hopes to continue but is not sure what to do because all the books and school materials burned.
"I think the books were our next biggest loss because we all love to read," she said. "We had thousands of books besides the school books."
Once the family has found a new home, Hay said there will be another donation day to help the family obtain any items they still need.
Miels can be reached at 715-833-9214, 800-236-7077 or [email protected].
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