Ed Grisamore

Gris: Rising up from the ashes

McRAE-HELENA -- There were plenty of sounds that could have stirred Wendy Lee from her sleep that Thursday night.

A train passing through town on the railroad tracks. Dogs barking. A slamming door.

But Wendy heard a fire.

It was not the smoke that woke her. It was not the burning in her throat, the stinging in her eyes or the heat pressing against her skin.

“That cracking, popping, whooshing sound,’’ she said.

The fire began on the screen porch, until the flames broke the windows across the back of the house. There wasn’t much time to wake her husband, Jonesy, and scream for her daughter, Randi Chele, on the landing of the staircase. Her son, Rhett, was away spending the night with a friend in Milan.

They stumbled into the dark yard like actors in a bad dream and hurried next door to her mama’s house to call 911.

“It looked like Atlanta burning in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ’’ she said.

Wendy has always loved that movie, so much that she named her son Rhett.

By midnight, firefighters had arrived from everywhere. They came from the one-stoplight town of Helena and neighboring McRae.

They tried in vain to save the tall, two-story house the Lees built 12 years ago on East Sixth Street.

“Some of them told us they had been fighting fires for years, and they had never seen one go up that fast,’’ Wendy said.

The Lees lost everything except the pajamas on their backs.

“It’s a surreal feeling not to own even a sock,’’ she said. “Or a toothbrush.’’

It was 14 years ago this month that the family experienced an even greater loss. The tragedy happened just a few feet away from what is now the burned ruins of their house.

On Feb. 27, 2001, her parents, Randy and Betty Yawn, were leaving their house with 5-year-old Rhett and his 15-month-old sister, Sailor Kate. They were headed to the Helena City Cemetery to place flowers on the grave of Betty’s mother, who had died the week before.

Randy accidentally backed over Sailor Kate in the driveway. On the day of her funeral, pink bows and teddy bears could be found in every corner pocket of Telfair County. Businesses even closed their doors.

Randy was one of the community’s most respected citizens. He worked at the Veterans Hospital in Dublin and was commissioned to carve a replica of the Statue of Liberty, which became a landmark in downtown McRae.

To cope with his grief, he built a gazebo in his driveway as a memorial to Sailor Kate. The following year, the Lees built their house on the lot next door.

They moved in two weeks before Randi Chele was born. She was named after her grandfather.

Randy Yawn died of cancer in 2007. Those who knew him said he really died of a broken heart. He never got over the death of Sailor Kate.

Wendy and her family channeled their sorrow by starting the Sailor Kate Ministry. Homemade quilts are now sent all over the country to families who have experienced similar tragedies. Teddy bears, known as Sailor’s Snuggles, are collected and given to hospitals, children’s homes and law enforcement agencies.

“They are for anyone who needs a hug,’’ Wendy said.

On the Thursday night of the fire, she had tagged teddy bears for the grandchildren of Bud and June Runion, the Marietta couple who were shot and killed a week earlier.

Their bodies had been found 14 miles south of McRae two days before. Their funeral was two days away. She had planned to send the bears with a group of 18 people from the community who attended the Saturday service at the Mount Paran North Church of God in Marietta.

She also selected a teddy bear to give to the 2-year-old daughter of Jay Towns, who has been charged with murder in the deaths of the Runions.

Wendy is a coordinator of the gifted program with the Telfair County school system. She knows the Towns family.

“Everybody knows everybody in this community,’’ she said. “The family is having a really hard time, so we are praying for them, too.’’

The fire destroyed those teddy bears, along with about 100 others and three handmade quilts.

So if you ask Wendy what the family needs, that’s what she will tell you. Teddy bears.

By 7:30 a.m. the morning after the fire, folks were showing up with food, clothes, shoes, blankets and money -- whatever the Lees needed. “We call them ‘friend-me-down’ clothes,’’ Wendy said.

There was a steady stream of open arms all weekend. Some were the same people who had taken food and coffee to law enforcement and search crews the week before.

A friend stood amazed at the outpouring of love at Wendy’s mother’s house. “Where are all the TV cameras now?” she asked.

The Lees had a half-dozen families offer them a place to stay. They have received support from Jonesy’s co-workers at Robins Air Force Base and Telfair Middle School, where Wendy teaches and Randi Chele is in the sixth grade. Students have started a donation bucket to purchase new teddy bears. Children at the elementary school are collecting the bears as part of their Random Acts of Kindness. And the literary arts club at the high school is planning its own project.

Donations have also come in from supporters of the Sailor Kate Ministry from as far away as California, Maine and Canada.

Those wishing to donate teddy bears can send them to 4 East Sixth St., Helena, Georgia 31037. “Our mailbox survived the fire,’’ Wendy said, laughing.

In Macon, the bears can be dropped off at Jeneane’s at Pinebrook restaurant on Forsyth Road, where Wendy’s aunt, Dawn Fowler, is the manager.

(Wendy said baby bears for children under 3 are needed, but the eyes should be stitched because buttons are a choking hazard. Additional information about the bear donations can be found on the Sailor Kate Ministry page on Facebook.)

Wendy knows the material things can be replaced. But family photographs, especially those of Sailor Kate before the Lees owned a digital camera, are among the keepsakes that are gone forever. The fire also claimed the handmade furniture her late father built for his grandchildren.

Something did survive, though.

Rhett found one of the family’s Bibles in the ashes. The charred pages were opened to Jeremiah 33:11.

“Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good. His love endures forever. For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before.’’

Contact Gris at 744-4275.

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