Bricks, Mortar & Love
10/31/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Nine-year-old Roman Richardson accidentally set a fire in the basement of his family's home in Pleasant Grove, Utah, when he dropped a burning piece of paper into a bag of old Halloween costumes on May 14. Flames threatened to engulf the run-down seven-bedroom house—home, as it happened, to a rather remarkable family. Over the past 14 years, in addition to four kids they had together, Greg and Holly Richardson have adopted 16 children, many with special needs, from countries like Ethiopia, Guatemala and the former Soviet Union. Recalls Holly of the blaze: "Thirty-five minutes later, the fire was still burning. I thought we were going to lose everything." Thankfully, everyone got out of the house unharmed. But after surveying the extensive smoke and soot damage, Holly, 40, and Greg, 43, wondered how they would ever get back on their feet.
Scott Bishop, a neighbor: I was out working in the yard and heard alarms going off. Smoke was pouring from the windows. The kids looked really scared—not crying but standing there quietly, in shock. Pretty soon, quite a crowd had gathered.
Wendy Mis-Olsen, of nearby Orem: I was watching the news and heard about a fire that had happened to a family who had done a miraculous job of raising these kids from different countries. It just broke my heart. The day after the newscast, I went to their house and gave a gift card to each of the kids and parents so they could all get new pairs of shoes.
Greg: Before the fire was even out, a young couple from down the street said, "We're moving in with our parents. Come stay at our house until you figure out what's going on." In all, 12 different families offered to let us stay in their houses.
The Richardsons spent three nights at the neighbors' house before renting a temporary place of their own.
Tracy Gillman, a homemaker who coordinated the rebuilding effort: I was touched from the first time I saw the Richardsons in church—the way the older children took care of the younger ones. I knew it wasn't my lot in life to adopt 16 kids, but it was my lot to help the family that did. We put a photo of the family outside the house, with the names and ages of the kids and where they were from. People would ask, "Do 20 kids really live here?" We'd say yes, and they'd say, "I'll be back tomorrow. I'm going to call so-and-so and see what they can do."
Bill Swadley, bank vice president: The Richardsons were our customers, and we felt a responsibility to them. So we helped organize a gala and auction that raised $27,000—plus $10,000 from our employees—so when the children came home, they'd each get a piggy bank with $500 in it.
Nolan Boyce, landscaper: I was jogging by one morning and told [volunteer organizer] Tiffany Berg I was a landscaper, and she said, "We'll put you to work." We dug holes and planted maple, linden and pine trees. I wound up working harder on this than a lot of paid projects.
Sheryl Pryor, interior designer: My bosses gave $5,000 worth of living room furniture. They started with a chenille sofa and love seat, but I looked around and thought, "This needs to be leather." So we carried the other stuff out and came back with leather.
Ken Burrows, whose company donated $18,000 worth of granite countertops: My hat just goes off to these parents for what they do. Nine of my employees did the work without pay.
In 10 days, 2,000 volunteers gave $400,000 in goods and services, including wheelchair ramps, carpeting and furniture for the entire house. They also laid 13,000 sq. ft. of sod in two hours.
Greg Adamson, real estate agent: The Richardsons' house would have appraised for $350,000 before we started. Now it's worth about $900,000.
Tracy Gillman: On Aug. 10, nearly three months after the fire, we put the family in a deluxe charter bus and took them for free haircuts, manicures and dinner at IHOP. There were black curtains over the windows so the kids couldn't see the house. The 40-member Pleasant Grove High School marching band paraded down the street. As we turned the corner, I saw 500 people outside. Kids were squealing, balloons were flying, people were screaming. The Richardson kids asked what all the noise was, and I said, "That's people who want to see you come home."
Alina, 15: Before all this, our home wasn't fun. It was so ugly I'd think, "How embarrassing, omigod." But when I saw it, I was like, "Where did the house go?" Last night I swung on the swing set for two hours.
Mira, 17: It made me cry to think that so many people who didn't know us did this for us.
Tiffany Berg, TV personality: This is like the phoenix rising from the ashes. What could have been a devastating disaster to this family was a miracle in disguise.
Greg: The landscaping's beautiful. We've got a fire pit and waterfall in the backyard. And we don't have to push the kids' wheelchairs up a gravel driveway anymore.
Holly: There have been times that we felt we don't fit in, we're too different. The family's very big, with multiple disabilities, multiple races. But we don't ever have to feel like we're outcasts again, because we're not. We're still different, but we're loved.
Greg: We can look at this house and know we are surrounded by love and that we live in the midst of angels.