Heather Abel sorts through clothes donated by the community when her house caught fire in October. Heather took a lot of the clothes, toys, dishes, and other household items to the McChord Chapel Dec. 14.

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Clothing, toys furniture, appliances ... You name it, they had it -- and last week they gave most of it away. For one Family living on McChord Field, a devastating fire revealed what was most important in their lives, and it wasn't "things."

Heather Abel was home with her 8-year-old son Oct. 17 when she noticed heavy smoke coming from the oven, which she had set to self cleaning mode. Curious and concerned, Abel opened the oven door to reveal a fire that quickly spread.

Unable to contain the fire, she grabbed her son and they escaped. Everyone was safe. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Jonathan Abel of 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, was at work, and her two younger sons, were playing at the neighbor's house.

Heather watched and listened in shock as years of Family memories burned before her eyes, describing the fire as appearing and sounding "very angry." Equity Residential placed them in a fully furnished temporary home the next day, then one week later they moved to another home on post.

With an estimated 90 percent of their belongings destroyed, one might expect the Family was struggling to make ends meet. But as news of the fire spread among the Joint Base Lewis-McChord community, donations began pouring in ... And they continued until Heather ran out of space at their new home.

"Anything that we could possibly have needed, we had almost immediately," Heather said.

A washer and dryer, living room furniture, toddler bed, bathroom set and countless other items were given to the Family -- nearly all of it anonymously. Heather said she expected some donations, but nowhere close to what they received.

"It's pretty overwhelming," Heather said of the community's generosity. "If it wasn't for the military in this situation, I don't know what we would have done."

Rather than keep, sell or have excess donations picked up, Heather passed the kindness on to other military Families with a "free indoor yard sale." On Dec. 14, she organized the overflow donations at the McChord Field Chapel Support Center and encouraged military Families to stop by between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. to take as much as they needed. It was a small way, she said, for her to give back to a community that gave so much to her Family.

"It was really important that people did not have to pay for any of this," she said. The military did so much for us that we wanted to make sure it was accessible to the military community."

Marissa Sikder, was among those who stopped by and benefited from Heather's kindness. She found out about the "free yard sale" through Facebook, where Heather posted information about the sale. Sikder, an Air Force spouse for almost three years, said support from the military goes far beyond what she has seen in the civilian sector.

"If you need anything, there's always someone there to help," Sikder said. "We're not always close to our Families by miles, so we truly become each other's Families here."

Agatha Shim found out through social networking that Heather had inherited an extra washer and dryer. Shim, her husband and two children recently relocated from Germany to JBLM and did not have the finances to purchase a set, so they used the Laundromat on post. That changed after Heather offered to give hers to Shim.

"Not only has her generosity made our lives easier, but her giving heart has encouraged me to look out for those in need as well," Shim said. "She touched me when it's a time where military Families do not make much ... But giving away when her Family gone through so much ... All I can say is, 'Wow!'"

Shim's reaction is exactly what Heather hoped for. One of Heather's goals is to encourage people to "pay it forward," and she has already seen evidence of achieving that goal. She also plans to
make the "free yard sale" an annual tradition by collecting items throughout the year that will be given to those in need during the holidays.

"The holiday tends to bring out the best in people, and I am very glad to see all the involvement from the community," Heather said. "But I really hope that people will keep it up and continue to take care of each other throughout the year."

Laura M. Levering:

Page last updated Thu December 22nd, 2011 at 17:31