Knights help fire victim rise from the ashes
It's hard to imagine what it's like to wake up one morning in your own bed, only to leave for the day and come back with everything gone — destroyed.
"We lost practically everything," said senior psychology and mathematics education major Michelle Liu, who lost her apartment from the recent fire that occurred at The Place at Alafaya Apartments.
Liu went out to dinner with her parents who were visiting from Sarasota on the night of the fire. After getting a call from her friend who heard the news about the fire on Facebook, Liu headed straight back to her apartment complex where she saw her building in flames and firefighters spraying water into what used to be her bedroom window.
Nearly eight apartments caught fire that night and almost 30 people lost their personal belongings, furniture and even pets.
"[My brother and I] had rescued a stray kitten last June and she was inside at the time of the fire. We were hoping she escaped somehow," Liu said, who lived with her brother, cousin and boyfriend.
Their computers, cameras, clothes, furniture and personal items were all lost from the fire.
The fire department was there the next day to investigate. One of the only items they were able to dig out was a guitar that belongs to Liu's boyfriend.
"The fire department even spent 10 minutes rummaging through the debris to try to find my backpack with my textbook, but to no avail; it was buried too deep underneath the fallen roof and other debris," Liu said.
Since the tragic incident, Liu has moved in to her new place while receiving tremendous help from neighbors, coworkers, family and sorority sisters.
Liu was offered a room to stay in at her job, the TownePlace Suites, while her new apartment was being set up. Her managers, coworkers and friends all donated money, bedding, furniture and clothes.
"It was a bit surreal the first two days. A bit emotional as well," Liu said. "Everyone has been so extremely generous that we even have too much kitchenware. We are packing some up to give to the apartment office to distribute to our other neighbors affected."
Although Liu didn't sign up for renter's insurance when she first signed her apartment lease in 2008, she is trying to make up for it with her GoFundMe account, which has nearly $2,000 already raised, with a goal of $2,500.
"None of us have been through a situation like this and we think it will surely be one of the bumps on the road of life that we won't forget," she said.
Her sorority, Delta Phi Lambda, came together for a sister in need by planning fundraisers to help donate as much as they can.
As an annual event, there will be a Valentine bake sale where members of the sorority will set up a table around the Student Union during the week of Valentine's Day, and will sell individual items and packages such as flowers and baked goods.
"When we found out it was her apartment, it all just became very tragic. Michelle is a very hard worker and has worked a lot to take care of herself and those around her. [The bake sale] is to raise money, and we hope to help Michelle financially, or even use the money to buy items that she can use," said Eunah Kim, a senior event management major and current treasurer of Delta Phi Lambda.
From setting up her new place to trying to get settled with classes, Liu is grateful that she has a strong support system helping her with this unexpected process.
Over the past few weeks, Liu has been receiving what seems to be an overwhelming response of help from her friends and family. What she might not have expected was that fellow peers, whom she doesn't know, are working to help her as well.
Indira Pryla, a junior mathematics major, has been hitting the popular pages on Facebook looking for other Knights who are willing to band together to create donations and fundraisers for those who lost so much in the fire.
"I am in the process of creating a GoFundMe account that would get evenly distributed to the families. I am hoping that other organizations at UCF will jump in and we can host a fundraiser," Pryla said. "I know with determination, I can help them get back on their feet."
Pryla received a number of responses from students on social media eager to help, including junior criminal justice major Aquilah Scott, who is using her past, gruesome experience to help her peers.
When Scott was 6 years old, she also lost her apartment due to a fire. With donations from her community, she was able to find a place to stay for her and her family.
"Donating and helping other students is simply the right thing to do. No one wants to be in a situation as such," Scott said. "Since they are at an unfortunate position, [those of us who are] stable should help out not only as students, but as a community."
It's almost impossible to wake up one morning and think that within a few hours, everything you have could suddenly be obliterated into nothing.
Liu said she thought she was going to spend the day with her family and boyfriend. Her unexpected turn of events became an everlasting memory and reminder to never take anything for granted; to be grateful for who and what you have.
"We lost a lot of material things, but we were all physically out of harm's way," Liu said. "We have our health and a loving support system that is helping us stay strong and get back into the semblance of a normal state.
"I have actively decided to live more simplistically and freely. No more collecting silly items and souvenirs, it is better to have a life defined by the memories you make."
Go to gofundme.com, search for Richard & Michelle and click on the first link.
Marina Guerges is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @marinaguerges or email her at MarinaG@CentralFloridaFuture.com.