Maureen Bradham was driving home on Route 50 in July 2011 when she heard sirens and saw smoke billowing above her Stone Ridge neighborhood. At first, she was afraid the fire was on her street or might even involve her home. When she got closer, she saw that it was a house on a nearby street that was ablaze.
But she didn’t go home. Instead, remembering lessons her father taught her in childhood, she went to the fire scene to see how she might help the victims.
Her familiarity with social media eventually provided an answer, giving her a way to help not only the victims of the Stone Ridge fire but also two more families who lost their homes a few months later.
Bradham assessed the situation at the fire scene from a safe distance. “I was kind of putting pieces together as the house was burning,” she said. “And I saw this woman walking by toward her kids, and all she said was, ‘Now my kids will have no keepsakes of their father.’ ”
Bradham soon learned that Susan Brann and her two school-age children had experienced another loss. Less than two years earlier, Brann’s husband, Robert, died in their home of a heart attack. Now, his widow and her children were watching the last keepsakes of their husband and father go up in smoke.
“I was just trying to think of the quickest way to get word out there that these people needed help,” Bradham said. “They didn’t even have shoes on their feet.”
The next morning, she decided to set up a Facebook page called “Help the Brann Family.”
“I wrote up a basic description of what happened, how the woman was a widow, and her husband had died in that home,” Bradham said. “And we had over a thousand members within the first 48 hours. It was just spreading like wildfire — pardon the pun — people wanting to help.”
She also started a fundraising campaign for the Branns using FundRazr, a Facebook application that allows people to give money to charitable causes.
“People mean well, and they want to help, but they [sometimes] don’t know how to help,” Bradham said. “I was just trying to think of the easiest way, where people didn’t even really have to think about it. They would just get on the page, click the button to donate, and it would walk them through the process real quick, and they’d be done.”
The fundraising campaign soon raised more than $12,000 for the Brann family. Clothing donations were sent to Bradham’s house, which served as a drop-off site.
“I remember saying it was like Christmas time, receiving Christmas cards in the mail, but it was all [mail] from people around the country with gift cards and checks and things for the Branns,” Bradham said.
Brann said she was extremely grateful to receive so much help from someone she had never even met before the fire.
“Maureen just reached out and got this Facebook page going, and not just monetary donations but clothing, personal things, just everything,” she said.
Brann said that when friends heard that the photos of her late husband had been destroyed, they used the Facebook page to share their pictures of him.
“It was just wonderful,” Brann said. Bradham “really reaches out to everybody like that in a tragedy.”
A few months later, last March, Bradham was again helping victims of a fire and using social media to do it. She set up a Facebook page for two South Riding families who had lost their homes.
“It has to be done so quickly, when people are inquiring about the story . . . because it’s on people’s minds right then, and you know how quickly the news changes, and then people are on to the next thing,” Bradham said. “I set up a FundRazr app right away.”
She set a fundraising goal of $10,000 — $5,000 for each family — and kept reloading the app and posting updates to keep the story near the top of her friends’ Facebook feeds. She reached the $10,000 goal in about two weeks.
Asked what had motivated her to help families she had never met, Bradham said she grew up in big family in Vienna, as one of five children.
“We lived paycheck to paycheck, and my mom stayed home. And on Sundays after church . . . my parents would [sometimes] line us up in the kitchen like an assembly line,” she said. “We would make peanut butter sandwiches and then we would drive downtown and hand them out to homeless people from the back of our station wagon.
“My dad always instilled in us that even when you don’t think you have much, there are always people more in need than you are,” she said. “And even now . . . we’ll go shopping with him to Wal-Mart, and he’ll purchase a whole section of gloves or hats and then just deliver them to a homeless shelter.”
Bradham has been following the progress of the three families she helped. One of the South Riding families moved back into its rebuilt house in January. Brann said that her house is still being rebuilt and that she expects to move back in the spring.
Bradham said the response from both communities was “unbelievable.”
“South Riding and Stone Ridge are such similar communities,” she said. “When I saw the outreach that was given to the Branns, I knew it would be the same in South Riding.”
She said that people in South Riding helped with the Branns, and that people in Stone Ridge helped the South Riding families. “It’s like one big community, in a way,” she said.