After storm, Springfield 8-year-old aims to help, four years after his own loss

Johnny Karlinchak, 8, was stunned when he saw that a 60-foot oak tree had crashed through his neighbor’s house in Springfield during last month’s storm . He immediately ran to his piggy bank, retrieved five quarters and handed them to her.

An hour later, he was standing behind a lemonade stand with a scribbled sign: “Mrs. Myers building fund.” He has put up his lemonade stand two more times, including on Saturday, and plans to continue doing so until he raises his neighbors’ $500 insurance deductible.

(Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST) - Johnny Karlinchak, 8, right, gets a hug from Mrs. Elissa Myers. He’s raising money to help fix her damaged home with a lemonade stand.

This was reflexive for Johnny.

While many people whose homes are intact have moved on from the storm, Johnny knows something about perseverance. He knows more than most 8-year-olds about compassion and surviving trauma.

“Being 8 years old, he’s experienced a lot in his lifetime,” said his mother, Donna Karlinchak.

Four years ago, he lost his 6-year-old sister, Kelly, in a car accident, and the neighbors rallied around Johnny and his family so much that they did not have to cook a meal for nine months. He saw his neighbors help raise $38,000 for a huge, state-of-the-art playground structure dedicated to Kelly at the swim center where the family plays.

Likewise, in the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Karlinchak started to come out of the darkest time of grief by extending herself to children in need.

She would regularly have Johnny around as her assistant. He would count the pajamas they were donating to a pajama program or tag along with her to a shelter.

“He just wants to help,” Karlinchak said.

The first day Johnny put up the lemonade stand in his community of cul-de-sacs and red brick ranch-style homes, he made $21 — after standing outside for an hour in the 104-degree heat.

He took another good look at his neighbors’ home and realized that they probably could use more than the $22.25 he had given them. He went out with the stand a few days later and made $108, and on Saturday he pulled in $233.

Johnny’s blond hair was sticking to his forehead with sweat Saturday as he poured lemonade and calculated his customers’ totals. Many of the neighbors who streamed by dropped extra cash in his jar.

“I gave more than enough for my lemonade and two cookies. The other day I did the same,” said Marian McLaughlin, 58, who added that she came to support both families. “This is a wonderful neighborhood.”

Johnny’s older sister, Katie, 13, spent two afternoons making the cookies — chocolate chip, colored sprinkles and even pink lemonade. The goodies were each 50 cents.

Many of Katie’s friends came to help and hold signs Saturday, including Claire Hollinger, 13, who said Johnny is like a brother to her.

“Even though he gets on our nerves, I’m really proud of him,” said Claire, whose eyes filled with tears as she spoke about how fast Johnny is growing up.

Then she went to hug him and he darted to the ground with a smile to avoid her hug.

The crew was being supervised by Donna Karlinchak, 44, who stays home with her children, and Steve Karlinchak, 45, an officer with the U.S. Capitol Police.

Johnny said that when he saw the home — half of it collapsed under the oak — his first thought was to spin into action.

“The whole right side of the house crashed down,” Johnny said. “It looked sad.”

When he handed Elissa Myers his piggy bank savings the day after the storm, he didn’t say a word.

“She was crying,” Johnny said, “but not crying like sad.”

Myers said that until that moment, she was able to keep her emotions under wrap.

“I lost many, many things that day. But things did not make me cry,” Myers said. “The overwhelming kindness of Johnny did.”

Myers, 61, said it is unbelievable that the tree only damaged her house and belongings. She and her husband, Bill Rogers, were in bed when their roof and one side of their house collapsed, but they escaped injury.

Now, they have a lot of rebuilding to do. The storm caused about $200,000 in damage, and it will take about six months until the house is repaired and they can move back in. The couple are staying in a friend’s basement and are looking for a short-term rental.

Myers is a consultant, and her husband is a mortgage banker, and they are financially comfortable. But she said she is “touched beyond words” by Johnny’s help.

The Karlinchaks and Myers have been neighbors for about eight years and live about six houses away from each other on Moultrie Road.

Johnny always enjoyed visiting Myers, in part because he was mesmerized by her huge fish tank. He eventually persuaded his parents to buy him one of his own.

“We’re great fish friends,” Myers said.

And Johnny has an 8-year-old’s appreciation for the huge candy dish Myers keeps in her house.

Donna Karlinchak said the hours she has devoted in recent years to needy children has helped her deal with her profound loss.

But, she added, “I still have trouble getting out of bed every morning.”

She said she thinks she has passed along to Johnny her method of giving as a way of healing.

“In the wake of tragedy, I wanted to rise above it,” she said. “Since we lost a daughter, it lets us give back to others.”

 
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