PRAIRIEVILLE — After fire damaged Calvin Wilson’s home one February morning, he was surprised and relieved when he and his family were offered the use of another house, Wilson said.
The house, which belongs to the parish, is known as the Fire House.
Wilson said Gene Witeck, the coordinator with the Fire Protection District 1, met the Wilson family at the house and “opened up the door for us.”
“It was a blessing,” Wilson said.
Established in 2011 by a group of people in Leadership Ascension, a Chamber of Commerce sponsored program, the Fire House has supplied five days of refuge — sometimes a little longer, depending on circumstances — for close to 30 families in the four years it’s been open.
Within recent months, it has provided housing for the Wilson family and another family, both of whom were forced out of their home by fire, said Gonzales Fire Chief Tracey Normand.
Normand said he was one of the 15 members of the Leadership Ascension Class of 2011 who helped get the project off the ground.
“It tugged at my heart,” Normand said of the idea for the Fire House.
“We extinguish the flames, salvage whatever we can — it’s their memories, their life,” he said. “We go home and they’re left facing new and difficult time.”
The Louisiana Capital Area Chapter of Red Cross, which serves a 10-parish area, also responds in the aftermath of house fires in Ascension Parish, providing guidance and temporary shelter in hotels.
The Fire House in Prairieville adds another level of response for parish residents.
The two-bedroom, one-bath home that sits in a quiet area across from a park and Duplessis Primary school off La. 621 has been a joint effort from the beginning. The parish-owned house was once the location of the parish’s recreation department offices. When that department outgrew the building, the parish started using it for storage, which is what it was used for until it became the Fire House.
The parish pays the utility bills for the house, Parish President Tommy Martinez said.
The house, he said, provides at least one thing that victims of fire don’t have to worry about in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
“At least they have a place to go,” Martinez said.
Members of the Leadership class turned the house from one with an office-type interior into a home, using any spare time they had.
“It didn’t look like a house,” said Alvin Broussard, director of public works for the city of Gonzales, who was one of the volunteers.
New sheetrock, wiring and kitchen cabinets were put in as well as a bathtub. Floors were redone and new doors were hung, all with donated or discounted material, Broussard and Normand said.
The house, from appliances to the bunk beds in the children’s room, was furnished by donations of items and money from businesses and individuals in the area, the men said.
Eatel provides the phone and cable service, and local fundraisers, including a Mardi Gras ball this year by the Rotary Club of East Ascension, provide those in the home with toiletries and basics like toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates and laundry detergent. This year, some of the money raised by the club has been set aside to buy a new washer and dryer.
The funds raised are managed by the Ascension Parish Mutual Aid Association, an organization of emergency responders in the parish.
It’s believed that the Fire House is one of two such efforts in the state — with the other being a similar program operated since 2009 by the Lafayette Fire Department, which is the inspiration for the one in Prairieville, Normand said.
The Leadership program is marking its 20th year this year, said Liz Laurent, vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Each year’s class, which has from 35 to 40 community leaders who meet regularly over a 10-month period, is divided into teams of people responsible for doing a project that benefits the Ascension Parish community, Laurent said.
“They’re always all wonderful projects,” she said.
Two teams from the Leadership Class of 2011 combined to establish the Fire House. In addition to the Fire House, other Leadership projects over the years have included a mobile kitchen used to provide meals for local and out-of-state emergency responders in times of disaster and a portable oxygen trailer to help homebound residents who need oxygen when there is a power outage.
Much of the day-to-day oversight of the Fire House is handled by Fire District 1, which includes six volunteer fire departments on the parish’s east side of the Mississippi River.
James LeBlanc, chairman of the fire district, said firefighters bring people in need of its services to the house or meet them there and help them get acquainted with the home.
Most people, he said, “don’t realize the impact this house has on a family that loses everything.”
“The kids don’t understand,” but when they come into a comfortable house with bunk beds, TV, Internet and a microwave, they feel like “they’re going from one home to another,” LeBlanc said.