When fire devastated the two-flat at 1124 Marengo Ave. during the early morning hours of Oct. 14, it didn’t take long for the news to reach Field-Stevenson School, where one of those displaced, Erick Ortega, attends fourth grade. 

Principal Tiffany Brunson was notified of the fire the morning after it happened. 

“I received a Facebook message at 7 a.m.,” Brunson recalled. 

Brunson, in turn, contacted District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo and school board members. The students and staff at Field-Stevenson immediately mobilized to help Ortega and his mother, Crystal Lewis.

“We stick together to be helpful,” Brunson said, “It’s typical of this community.” 

Students donated money, while staff members and local residents donated clothing. “People have dropped off suitcases and boxes of clothing,” Brunson said, “Virginia lugs the clothing over to Carole’s.” 

She was referring to her secretary, Virginia Pusavc, who brought the donations to the tavern at 7311 Roosevelt Road.

“We teach altruism at Field-Stevenson,” Brunson said. “We have raised money for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and Texas. We also collected diapers, batteries and water for the hurricane victims. We’ve raised money for students who have lost their parent. We’re collecting socks for [the homeless].” 

At the time of the fire, the students were busy raising money for the Wildlife Foundation to adopt endangered animals. They gave the surplus to Erick’s family. Brunson and Pusavc spread the word in the District 91 community. 

“All the schools are donating money,” Brunson said. 

Crystal Lewis is certainly grateful for the outpouring of help from the community. She is relieved that their possessions are covered by renter’s insurance. She is also thankful that her boyfriend, building owner Eric Jensen, is covered for the fire loss. 

Lewis and Jensen are temporarily staying at an extended-stay hotel in Oak Brook, with their two dogs. Ortega is staying with an aunt in Lynwood, but Lewis hoped to have him back in school this week. 

“I’m so grateful that everyone made it out safe,” Lewis said, “When it first happened, it was just devastating. We lost everything.” 

When she learned how many in the community cared, it eased the pain. 

“It makes you feel you’re not alone,” Lewis said. “It’s a huge comfort. We’ve never been through this before.”

The fire was still raging when neighbors poured out of their homes to help.

 “They brought us socks, shirts, water and leashes for our dogs,” said Lewis, “We love our neighborhood.”

Brunson said she’s proud of how the neighborhood schools also stepped up. 

“Our students can see how people can be impacted by the help they give,” she said. “They know their giving can help a family heal.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.