By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Flames might have demolished an Epworth Children’s Home building, but an outpouring of love, support and generosity is soothing the burn.
On June 2, an afternoon electrical fire swept through an operations shop and storage building on the campus of the United Methodist-founded children’s home, burning up supplies and maintenance equipment and destroying the 7,400-square-foot space.
No one was hurt in the blaze.
News spread quickly—and with the news came instant response.
“I thought there’d be some response, but almost immediately we were getting calls: What do you need? What can we do?” said the Rev. John Holler, Epworth president and chief executive officer. “People were going to the Epworth website, buying supplies and having them shipped.
“Every day’s been kind of like a surprise day, whether it’s Amazon or UPS or post office trucks coming.”
Founded in 1896, Epworth serves children and youth from broken family systems, offering residential care, education, counseling, medical care and more. About 76 children and youth live on the campus, and the building destroyed by the fire was used both for maintenance equipment and to house supplies for all the day-to-day goods and clothes the children need—everything from deodorant, soap and toothbrushes to bedding. Most of these items have been donated to Epworth from churches and volunteers across the state.
When news traveled that these supplies had burned up, people stepped up. Epworth has transformed its Missions House into its temporary storage building, now filled wall-to-wall with replacement supplies, Holler said.
“It looks like a CVS in there—we’ve got detergent, deodorant, Kleenex, everything!” Holler said.
Shandon United Methodist Church, Columbia, was one of the many churches that responded to help after the fire.
The Rev. Shannon Bullion, minister of evangelism and outreach at Shandon, said the congregation was “heartbroken by their loss” and right away began assembling welcome baskets for the children. Each basket contains a plastic laundry basket, twin sheet set, twin comforter, pillow, comforter, toothbrush, toothpaste, Chapstick, umbrella and a small stuffed animal. Recently they delivered 30 baskets and are currently working on more.
“We are just so grateful that it was only things,” Bullion said.
‘Faith calls us to share’
Holler said investigators think a faulty electrical circuit in the building’s attic was to blame for the fire, though the official report has not yet been released.
Built in 1951, the building was originally called the “Industrial Building,” housing a print shop, woodworking shop, electrical shop and campus laundry. Epworth children worked there learning trades and other skills.
On the afternoon of the fire, Holler said, maintenance workers were inspecting the air conditioning and water units when they heard a crackling sound. A few minutes later, Holler said, they smelled smoke.
Firefighters were on scene in minutes, and Holler rushed out of his office to see.
“Flames were already coming out of the attic eaves, through the roof,” Holler said. “Smoke and orange flames had already burned a hole in the roof, and firemen were shooting water in the roof through the hole.”
All the children were sent to the gym to make sure everyone was accounted for and out of harm’s way. A few lingered, and many have asked questions, Holler said.
“But it doesn’t seem to have been traumatic for them,” he said.
Many of the children who come to Epworth are recovering from deep emotional trauma, abuse, neglect and other painful situations. Staff said many times it is difficult for the children to understand why churches and other volunteers care enough about them to donate large sums of money, supplies and other items.
But, Holler said, the love shown from strangers and friends after the fire has underscored the “why.”
“I was talking with the boys’ cottages, and one boy asked, ‘Why would somebody give money for us to use and they don’t even know who I am?’” Holler said. “This gave us the chance to talk about how faith calls us to share with our neighbors and love others. They’re always amazed—I tell them people all over the state and beyond care about what happens to you, and they demonstrate it by giving their money and their hard-earned resources.”
But even Holler has been surprised and amazed, he said, at the generosity.
“Neighbors as I walk down the street hand me an envelope and say, ‘This is for the fire fund,’ and some people I don’t know all that well,” he said. “Other nonprofits have sent in donations even as they struggle with funds.
“That sense of community, that ‘we’re with you,’ has been really heartwarming.”
‘God always provides’
Beth Robinson, Epworth’s volunteer coordinator, has also been amazed at the love and support people have shown for Epworth and its children.
Robinson had been on maternity leave, and the day after the fire was her first day back to the office. Prior to her return, Epworth had had a moratorium on volunteers because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the fire changed things. Between the donations and other support, volunteers were quickly mobilized. A group from the Junior League of Columbia helped staff a donation drop-off event Epworth hosted June 5-12, greeting donors, collecting items and organizing the new supply space.
Donors poured on-campus through the week. Robinson said UMCs showed up with cars, trucks and trailers full of items off their wish list. Robinson said one woman, Forest Drive Walmart manager Peggy Nemeth, shared Epworth’s need with other managers, and within the week all 11 stores in the area contributed. One young girl sold baked goods and donated her earnings to Epworth, she said, and many shopped online and had their items shipped directly to Epworth.
“Whenever there is a time of need, God always provides. This is true as donations arrived at Epworth just as the fire trucks were leaving,” Robinson said. “Calls began as the news stations covered the story, and our community showed up. Churches are hosting collection drives and sharing monetary donations to assist with replacing the many items lost in the fire.”
As for her, Robinson said she is encouraged that no matter the circumstance, people want to help to the best of their ability.
“It is refreshing to witness the love and support our UMC churches have for our Epworth family. To all who have prayed for us during the time and for those who have shared donations, thank you for your generosity,” Robinson said.
While the outpouring has been generous, Epworth still can use and much appreciates additional support. To see their current wish list, visit https://www.epworthchildrenshome.org/featured/wish-list.
By Jessica Brodie