Joliet community, Schools District 86 rally to help family at Christmas after fire

Joliet firefighters work to extinguish a fire at 105 McDonough Street on Nov. 30.

Joliet — One family in Joliet received a Christmas surprise this year from the Associated Clubs of Will County after a fire left the family living in a hotel for the holidays.

The family of eight, who requested not to be named, lost their McDonough Street home and most of their belongings in an overnight fire Nov. 30, according to a news release.

The family escaped the fire unharmed but has been living in a hotel for the past month, which inspired members of the community to offer a helping hand for the holidays.

“Joliet Public Schools District 86 has five of the family’s six children in its schools and did not want them to have a bleak Christmas,” said Tony Arellano, who serves as treasurer of the Associated Clubs. “It got around to some of the administrators at the district, and they reached out for help.”

According to Al Petro, a retired Joliet firefighter and the financial secretary of the Moran Athletic Club, Joliet Schools District 86 Director of Communications Sandy Zalewski contacted the American Legion Post 1080 for assistance, but since no members of the family were veterans, the post was unable to offer assistance. However, the post did contact Moran Athletic Club President Doug Lawler, who rallied the help of the Associated Clubs.

The Moran Club took the lead on getting things rolling.

The Associated Clubs is an umbrella organization comprising 17 local groups and private community clubs, as well as veterans organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts. It was established more than 70 years ago by a group of World War II veterans who had returned home and wanted to help the Joliet community. The group primarily provides support to local food pantries, veterans charities, and animal shelters.

“We aren’t a huge organization, but we’re a constant organization,” Arellano said. “Not too many people know about us, but we were honored by the Joliet City Council for 70 years of service to the community, and over that time we’ve been able to contribute over $1 million to various projects in the Joliet area.”

In one week, Lawler and Petro reached out to members of the Moran Club and several other Associated Club organizations, including the Italian American Club and the Northwest Club which each contributed funds. Other members of the Associated Clubs including VFW Cantigny Post 367 Cmdr. Lou Smith and Associated Club President Tom Bolek and his wife Barbara, also made personal donations to the effort.

The club members raised more than $2,000 on short notice to buy gift cards for the family who lost its home from local stores such as Target, Walmart, Jewel-Osco and local gas stations.

“We asked them about their long-term plans and tried to meet their needs so they could buy food and gifts, and gas to get to the stores,” Arellano said. “They are in the midst of moving into temporary rental housing, where they can stay during the rebuilding process once all the insurance issues are settled.”

The club also arranged staple furniture items including a couch, kitchen set and some basic utensils to be delivered to the family’s new house after Christmas.

“We didn’t have time to contact everyone because a lot of the clubs need board approval to donate and we wanted to get this done before Christmas,” Petro said. “They lost everything, and as a fire fighter I’ve seen it happen before. I know how devastating it can be, and I wanted to help make things right.”

Members of the Moran Club and Associated Clubs met with the family at District 86 on Dec. 21 to present them with the gift cards and explain what they’d done.

“When we told her how much we’d raised, the mom started to cry,” Petro said. “It felt so good to help them out, it’s not even funny. It worked out really good in such a short time.”

“We just want the public to know that they are not alone,” Arellano said. “If they ask, there’s always help out there for them.”

In addition to supporting five Joliet-area food pantries in 2023, the Associated Clubs have provided support to Will County no-kill animal shelters and donated $2,000 to the Manteno Home for Veterans to fund on-site activities and entertainment for residents.