Sean Russell still hasn't met the Columbus family he has helped, but his compassion and action sparked another example of the Chattahoochee Valley's generosity after a fire burned them out of their home.
Matt Tinker and his fiancée, Rachel Sims, had been living for more than a year in their Apache Court rental house, along with their three children - her daughters, 2-year-old Madison and 6-year-old Hannah, and his 4-year-old son, Derek.
Around 1:30 p.m. on May 28, they returned from Peachtree Mall and saw the fire trucks.
"It didn't look extremely bad from the outside," Tinker said, "but the heat and smoke got what the fire didn't."
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Tinker works for Harmony Pest Control, and Sims takes care of the children while taking online classes through Kaplan University to become a medical assistant. The laptop computer she used for school is among the items they lost in the fire that destroyed the contents of the house, Sims said.
"We're trying to start over," Tinker said.
The fire inspector determined the cause to be an overheated power strip behind a loveseat, Tinker said. "It wasn't overloaded," he said. "Only four things were plugged into it." His renter's insurance company, he added, is investigating whether the power strip was faulty.
Meanwhile, Tinker discovered an unauthorized withdrawal of $300 from his bank account. Wells Fargo reimbursed him, he said, "but it was just another thing to deal with."
The family's three dogs were in the backyard during the fire and weren't harmed. The Chihuahua is staying with them in a hotel while they search for another home, but the Great Dane and a Labrador retriever are too big.
And that's where Russell entered this story. He saw on a Facebook group page for buying, selling and trading in Columbus that Tinker had posted his family's predicament and the dogs' availability.
"This resonated with me because I had to re-home my two dogs back in 2009 when I moved," said Russell, a marketing specialist for the Turner College of Business at Columbus State University. "We have a strong social media community of pet advocates here, so I thought it was worth sharing on my page."
Tinker found homes for the dogs before Russell texted him, but Russell found another way to help Tinker's family. After discussing the situation with his wife, Bridgette, a communications specialist at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Rivers, they decided to raise money for the family through GoFundMe.com. As of Wednesday afternoon, a total of $395 has been collected from 15 donors in seven days.
"The reactions and responsiveness of our community doesn't surprise me at all," Russell said. "Servant leadership is embedded in everything, from our businesses and education, down to our individuals. Once we manage to get the word out on issues like this, everything comes together."
Sims and Tinker are grateful for the aid, especially from strangers.
"It's awesome," Sims said. "People who don't even know you are wanting to help."
They do know the two local businesses that have collected clothes and household items for the family: Skin Traditions tattoo parlor in Phenix City, where Tinker and Sims have been customers, and East West Martial Arts in Columbus, where Hannah trained.
"I've always been the type that hasn't been in the position where I had to have help, so it's kind of an uncomfortable feeling, a strange feeling," Tinker said. "But, at the same time, it's nice to see that folks are willing to help. Really, without the help, I don't know where we'd be right now."
HOW TO HELP
Folks have established the following ways to help the family:
Donate money at GoFundMe.com/TinkerFamily
Donate clothes or household items at two local businesses: East West Martial Arts, 4519 Woodruff Road, Suite 14, Columbus, 706-507-6000; or at Skin Traditions tattoo studio, 2113 Crawford Road, Phenix City, 334-480-0770.