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Chester County Press

Oxford Strong: Neighborhood Services Center answers the call after recent fire

11/22/2023 11:23AM ● By Richard Gaw
Oxford Strong: Neighborhood Services Center answers the call after recent fire [4 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

On a recent afternoon resplendent with a rich blue sky and only the faintest snap of autumn chill in the air, North Third Street in Oxford was silent, save for the cars that stopped and started along the street and the whirring rumble of cranes that removed the rubble and debris from the Sept. 13 fire there, as if they were wiping away a bad dream.

In the humming motor of this return to relative normalcy, the chaos of that early morning when a fire ripped through four multi-use buildings and set the Oxford night into a smoldering conflagration of distress now seems surreal. In its aftermath, now two months removed, the story of the Oxford fire is now a story that is best told in three parts -- Tragedy, Action and Partnerships.

The morning of Sept. 13 in Chester County began as a celebration. After two weeks of eluding hundreds of law enforcement authorities after his Aug. 31 escape from Chester County Prison, it was announced that convicted murderer Danilo Cavalcante had been captured without incident in northern Chester County. In Oxford, residents delighted in the relief that the manhunt had finally ended, which added to the post COVID-19 feeling of hope and progress in a town that was experiencing a resurrection of infrastructure, business growth and culture.

At about 11:30 that night, a four-alarm fire began on South Third Street, knocking out power to four multi-use buildings and forcing 26 families – nearly 100 residents – to flee into the street wearing only their night clothes. Fire damage to Oxford Main Street, Inc., The Maroon Hornet Collectibles, Dubarry of Ireland and Toot Sweet was extensive, and the heart of Oxford’s downtown was a swelter of firefighters, sirens and panic. 

‘How many families is this going to affect?’

His phone was buzzing constantly. 

Aaron Karpas had started his position as the executive director of the Oxford Neighborhood Services Center (NSC) four months before and while it was customary to receive frequent messages as part of his job, he wasn’t used to getting them in the middle of the night. A case manager from the Neighborhood Services Center left a message, telling him that a fire had broken out along Third Street. Another message arrived from NSC Chairperson Linda Staffieri. 

“As I was driving through the back roads toward town, I saw the helicopters in the air and thought, ‘This is big. This is bad,’” Staffieri said. “When I arrived downtown, I could see the devastation that was happening and how many buildings were affected. “It was all gone, and all I could do is give them hugs and tell them that the Neighborhood Services Center will be there for them.”

When Karpas arrived on the scene at 5:30 a.m., he saw smoke and fire everywhere. He saw firemen, exhausted from battling the fire, chugging from water bottles donated by residents. He saw dozens of residents arrive armed with cases of water and hundreds of hoagies and breakfast sandwiches, asking if they could do more to help.

“I asked, ‘How many people does this fire affect and could these families possibly be some that we have worked with?’” Karpas said. “We began counting them up and it was one family and two families and three families and soon, we realized that we knew every one of those families.”

When he first arrived at the fire, Oxford Mayor Phil Harris surveyed the fire’s devastation, and later that evening, he entered Penns Grove Middle School and saw the families who had been transferred there from the fire, having lost everything they owned except the night clothes on their backs. Cafeteria workers prepared meals. The school’s janitorial staff worked with the Red Cross to arrange comfort stations and distribute items. Harris then approached them and performed the most difficult task during his four years as mayor.

Harris told them, “There is nothing left.”

The black cloud in Oxford caused by the still smoldering fire was quickly tampered down by the immediate need to galvanize. On the afternoon of Sept. 15, Harris called a meeting of local agencies and emergency personnel at the Oxford Borough Hall that saw representatives from nearly every Oxford agency gathered: the Oxford Fire Company: the Red Cross, the Chester County Office of Emergency Management, the Neighborhood Services Center; La Communidad Hispana; Serving, Inspiring, Loving Others (SILO); the Oxford Chamber of Commerce; the Oxford Borough and leaders of nearly every non-profit agency and house of worship in town. Almost immediately, the Chamber of Commerce organized a donations page to help those affected by the fire.

“We addressed the basic needs first,” Harris said. “We began to answer questions like, ‘Who is going to feed 100 people?’ ‘How do we get them hotel rooms?’ ‘How do we get them from the hotel to their jobs?’ ‘Who is their employer and how do we contact them, because they no longer have phones.’ ‘How are their kids going to get to school?’ 

“But first, we needed organization.”

By Monday, Sept. 17, Harris formed an agency alignment consortium and enlisted NSC as the lead agency in the recovery process for Oxford, but as NSC staffers began arriving at their office on North Third Street to begin their task, they could not enter the building. More than 70 bags of clothing had been donated by the local community over the weekend and were found stacked on the front porch.

“I have worked in the non-profit sector my entire career and one of the main parts of my position is fundraising for the work that we do,” Karpas said. “This was the first time in my career I had people asking, ‘Do you want money?’ and having to tell them ‘We don’t need anything right now. Give your donations all to the Oxford Chamber of Commerce.”

“I was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support, but I was not surprised, because I know this community,” Harris said. “The food, the donations, the clothing -- everything in town goes to a humanitarian level where together we get above the conflict.”

Permanent housing for all 26 families

In a town whose foundation is supported by the bedrock of its many non-profit agencies, it was to no one’s great surprise that NSC was asked to take the lead on recovery efforts. The organization serves as a lifeline of hope for the most vulnerable in the greater Oxford area, and with the support of its case management team, staff and volunteers, NSC works with families to provide free access to crucial needs such as food, financial assistance, referrals, resources life skills, direction and guidance. 

“We have the framework to provide assistance to these families assistance because it’s what we do every day,” Staffieri said. “When you have something catastrophic like this, an agency such as ours begins to rise to the forefront, but we do this every day.”

Working with the Chester County Office of Emergency Management and the Red Cross, the Center worked with each individual displaced family to help them during their transition – first to locate them at a local hotel for the first two weeks after the fire and then to find them permanent housing solutions. Within three weeks of the fire, NSC and its partners found housing placement for all 26 families. Moreover, not one child displaced from the fire missed one day of school, and parents are provided transportation to and from their jobs. 

Over the last two months, the agency’s emergency fund established on its website raised over $100,000 from area contributions, all of which have gone directly to the victims of the fire, including the businesses whose infrastructure was damaged. 

The recovery efforts haven’t stopped with the work of NSC. The Chester County Office of Emergency Management has established a document recovery program at the Lighthouse Youth Center that allows fire victims to re-obtain crucial documents such as green cards, driver’s licenses and passports. 

‘Mutual respect and trust’

In looking back over the last two months, Harris, Karpas and Staffieri said that what has ultimately allowed Oxford to recover from the tragedy of Sept. 13 comes down to the generous overlap of agencies, civic departments, school leaders, county-based organizations and down-the-block neighbors, each of whom applied their knowledge, experience and humanity.

“If this were week one of my term as a mayor, it would’ve been a huge challenge to find the leaders, but this is my fourth year, and I have built enough relationships to know that this is about mutual respect and trust,” Harris said. “When you operate that way, it allows you to talk with each other honestly and openly and lift each other up, without ego.

“Neighborhood Services Center is so important to this community,” Harris added. “If it weren’t here, honestly, I don’t know what we would have done.” 

“If it were not for Mayor Harris to bring us all together and making sure everything was delegated, we would have been stumbling all over each other,” Karpas said. “We can have all of the relationships in the world and all try to do the right thing but if you don’t have people coming to the table and keeping them in their lane trying to get to one positive goal, this would have been far worse.”

Staffieri said that Karpas’ leadership during the crisis served as a link in a large chain of assistance.

“Aaron was the key point person in being able to successfully have this organization support everything that was coming at us through that fire,” she said. “Helping these families in their recovery is about supporting Aaron’s leadership. It has been about the impact of social media to provide information. It has been about monetary donations from community and business members. 

“Helping these families is not done. Neighborhood Services Center will continue to walk with them throughout their journey until they don’t need us any longer.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].