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Rising From the Ashes

Wendy Whitelaw's house in the 31000 block of Congressional Drive burned down on Dec. 3 last year, and her family's struggling to put its life back together.

For a woman so used to helping others, accepting help was one of the hardest parts about losing her home.

Wendy Whitelaw's house in the 31000 block of Congressional Drive burned down on Dec. 3 last year, and her family's struggling to put its life back together.

The shell of the house stands erect today, though it's blackened walls and ceiling house only melted toys, burned photos and piles of wood -- the family's furniture.

To read about the fire,.

Whitelaw, her two daughters, Cora and Anna, and their dog, Sasha, once lived there. They returned to the house this week to talk about what they lost, what they still have, and what they are trying to find again.

“We are still putting it back together,” Whitelaw said. “You realize the things in the home are just things, and just letting go of those things is how I’ve started putting my life back together.”

When the fire broke out, the family was eating breakfast at . She got a call on her cell phone saying their home is on fire.

“We went tearing out of the restaurant and rushed home,” she recalled.

They stood helpless that day and watched flames devour everything they ever owned.

After the fire died and the smoke cleared, the family was homeless and devastated, Whitelaw said.

“That night the girls went to their father’s house, and he bought them clothes,” Whitelaw said.

Wendy and her boyfriend stayed at her mother’s house in South Mission Beach, the city where she grew dup.

Whitelaw has always given her support to her friends, family -- even complete strangers. Having to go to other people for help was so hard for her, she said.

“Oddly enough, one of the biggest challenges has been accepting gifts and the generosity from people,” she said. “I have several stories where people gave money, and I knew they had none."

She recalled a benefit her friends organized to help them pay for groceries.

“They did a fundraiser for us at the Cal Oaks bowling alley and raised $1,400," Whitelaw said. "And we’ve had around 300 gift cards come in.”

As Whitelaw told her story, her eyes fell on a Bible among the ashes, and she stopped.

She picked it up and leafed through it. The pages were almost undamaged. Inside was nestled a note from her late grandfather. Tears welled in her eyes.

When you have everything, you take these things -- Bibles, notes from family members -- for granted, she mused. But they're still just things. The family's safe, and that's what gets her by.

“We are all safe, we’re here and alive. The other stuff can be replaced,” she said.

To see a photo gallery of the Whitelaw family and their former home, click here.

Still, they have a bumpy road ahead and an uncertain future.

“I’ve had struggles like everyone else does when it comes to the financial stuff,” Whitelaw said sitting outside her ruined home with a full moon overhead. “I’m no different from everyone else, and the biggest struggle is having faith that it will turn out the way it is supposed to."

She feels much the same today as she did that day as she watched her home burn down. She feels helpless.

“There are things in this that are bigger than me,” she said. “Things like the   lender, my ex-husband and the insurance company. That I’ve had to put my whole entire life in their hands, pretty much.”

Luckily, Whitelaw had a good insurance policy, and it saved the family from complete financial ruin.

“They’ve helped me with my living expenses... thats part of my insurance,” she said. “The biggest thing is making sure your coverage is good, and my insurance agent was here the day of the fire and every step of the way.”

Though the insurance money is her saving grace, it -- like many things these days -- is not coming easy.

“I did get a check to rebuild the home, but its made out to my leander, GMAC and myself,” Whitelaw said. “I can’t cash the check and move (forward) until the leander releases it and we’ve hit a bureaucratical wall with that."

“The lender made a mistake and didn’t add me to a note," she said.

Without being on a note to the home, she is unable to cash the insurance check and move forward in the rebuilding of the house, which will cost around $435,000, she said.

“I’m sitting on a check that I can’t do anything with to rebuild our home.”

Through it all, Whitelaw pushes herself to keep a positive outlook on life, for her own sake and for that of her family.

“I want the best for my girls and myself,” she said. “Its coming out to be better, and thats also because the way I look at it.”

The cause of the fire was never determined, according to Whitelaw.

CORRECTION: The author of the note Wendy Whitelaw found in her Bible was misidentified in an earlier version of this story. It was corrected at 7:50 a.m. on March 9. We apologize for the error.

Ken okey March 09, 2012 at 07:39 PM
This family has strength!
Sue Moriki March 09, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Had no idea that you lost a home to fire. . I m loss for words of comfort. We are so sorry.

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