Gary Weightman, owner of Warehouse Liquors in Forestville, was watching television with his staff in the store on Dec. 30 when they saw footage of the devastating apartment fire in Temple Hills that displaced 24 families.
An employee suggested that the store place a collection box on the counter for customers to donate to the victims. Within minutes, the money was pouring in.
"It was really something. We put the box out on the counter and told the customers that we were collecting for the victims, and they just kept giving. We collected $278 in three days. We had to put out another container because the first one filled up so fast," he said. "We collected so much that I decided to match whatever came in."
Weightman soon found that he wasn't the only one overwhelmed. When he contacted the Silver Hill Volunteer Fire Department to offer his donation, he was told that the firehouse could no longer accept donations because it had been besieged with clothing, furniture and other items from the community for the victims of the fire at Carriage Hill Apartments. After distributing what donations it had collected, the firehouse enlisted the help of a church to collect and distribute future donations.
"It was just an enormous outpouring from the community. Throughout the New Year's weekend, it just kept coming in. The two bays at the station house were full, and the donations stood five feet high," said Capt. Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department. "They far exceeded our expectations and we just couldn't handle it all, so we made arrangements with Mount Ararat to begin accepting the donations."
The Rev. Fred Neal, pastor of Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Suitland, said the church has received numerous donations in the past two weeks--so many that he hasn't had time to count them all. He said the church has collected about $2,500 and loads of clothing and furniture.
"It's just unbelievable. In just two days, the church was filling up. It's really wonderful how the community has gotten involved," he said. "It's really touching, the letters of support and donation that have been coming in. It has been a great community effort."
Southern Management, which owns Carriage Hill Apartments, has been working to relocate displaced families. Pamela Martin, director of community relations for Southern Management, said the phone has been ringing off the hook with people offering assistance to the families.
"Just at our office, the number of donations we received filled an office. We were receiving calls from all our other communities offering help," she said. "It was amazing. It was really heartwarming."
Weightman, who has been operating his business in Forestville for nearly 25 years, said the outpouring of support shows how tightknit the community is. Though Temple Hills residents are not regular customers of his, he said he felt the need to help people who live nearby.
"I just figured it would be a nice thing to do. I know that those people don't patronize me, that I am a little ways off from where they usually shop, but they are close enough for me to want to get involved."
CAPTION: The Rev. Fred Neal surveys the donations for victims of the apartment fire.