Jordan Jackson has a little morning routine. He runs from the living room in his family’s Evanston apartment back to his parents’ bedroom and checks if his mom is awake. If she’s sleeping, he kisses her cheek and runs back out. A few minutes later: repeat.
Jordan is 9 and he’s autistic. His mom, Mayra Jackson, said the routine soothes him. (She’s pretty fond of it too.)
On the morning of Dec. 23, Jordan and his younger brother, Nicholas, were playing in the living room of their garden apartment with their dad, Latwian Jackson, who was getting ready to log on to his computer to start his work day. It wasn’t quite 7 a.m.
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Jordan commenced to running. On one of his return trips, he yelled, “Papi! Papi! There’s a fire!”
Flames had erupted behind the wall where Mayra slept. She awoke to her husband telling her there was a fire. Jordan and Nicholas, 4, started to cry. Mayra and Latwian rushed them out a back door. Only Latwian was dressed for the day.
They grabbed nothing but Mayra’s phone, which she was using to call 911 when Jill Miller appeared outside their back door.
“She’s like, ‘Come on, guys, come on, get in my car,’” Mayra Jackson said. “My little one ran to her, no hesitation, and she took him and was holding him and he was panicked and cold. I think it was the city girl in me, but I’m like, ‘Who is this person?’”
(Mayra Jackson grew up in and around Bucktown. “Before it was Bucktown,” she said.)
The fire department arrived and extinguished the fire within 10 minutes of Jackson’s call. No foul play is suspected, and the fire is suspected to be electrical in origin, Kimberly Kull, Evanston’s division chief of emergency management and logistics, said Monday.
But those 10 minutes were enough to destroy the family’s home and virtually all of their belongings. Their clothing. Their photos. Jacob and Nicholas’ toys. Mayra’s artwork, which she used to display on the apartment windows, much to the delight of passersby on Dempster Street. The baking equipment she was collecting to start a cake pop business. The crutches Mayra still relied on after falling and breaking her leg in January. All gone, two days before Christmas.
Miller, who lives a few blocks from the Jacksons’ apartment, was pulling out of a Starbucks on Dempster Street when she noticed flames crashing through the apartment’s ground-level windows. She steered her car toward the fire and noticed the family, most of them barefoot and barely clothed, standing outside. Nicholas wore a T-shirt and a Pull-Up diaper.
“Everybody was kind of screaming and I could only imagine what my kids would be doing in that situation,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘Everybody get in the car.’”
They piled in, despite Mayra’s initial hesitation.
“Honestly,” Miller said, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget what it was like to watch somebody’s home burn with them.”
Jordan turned his attention to his mom.
“My son doesn’t like when I’m in pain,” Mayra Jackson said. “He put his hand on one of my cheeks and his other hand was by my heart and he was tapping it. He said, ‘No more 1249. X out 1249. That’s not our address anymore. Mommy, it’s OK.’”
Their address was 1249 Judson Ave.
Miller called her boss and said she needed the day off. She brought the Jacksons to her apartment and soon realized Mayra was the artist whose work she and her two daughters would stop and admire when they walked east along Dempster Street to Lake Michigan.
Mayra and Latwian started calling family members to break the news.
“I grabbed blankets off my girls and was like, ‘We have visitors,’” Miller said. “I sent one of my kids to the store for diapers.”
She dashed off an email to the neighbors in her building, one of whom works for Evanston/Skokie School District 65, where Jacob attends school, letting them know that a nearby family just lost everything in a fire. Miller’s neighbors started contacting their networks, and soon a community of support was activated and growing.
“One neighbor said, ‘Whatever you need, just come take it from my dresser,’” said Miller, who headed over and rifled through the dresser to procure some clothing for Mayra.
Another neighbor who buys and sells refurbished toys showed up with two bags of gift-wrapped toys for Jacob and Nicholas. Miller said an Evanston police officer showed up with toys and supplies for the family — collected, he told them, from his fraternity brothers.
“One woman came over and pulled a 32-inch TV out of her trunk,’” Miller said. “She said, ‘I told my neighbor what happened and she grabbed this from under her tree.’ You don’t realize how much you have until someone has literally nothing.”
In the spring, Miller met an Evanston entrepreneur named Stephen Klava, who had recently developed a mobile crowdfunding app. Miller looked up Klava on LinkedIn and sent him a note about the Jacksons, asking whether he could help.
“I was out running some errands,” Klava told me. “I called Jill and said ‘Why don’t I just come over to your house and help you set it up?’”
By that evening, they had established a Klava Fund, which allows people who download the Klava app to donate to the Jacksons using the hashtag #jacksonfamilyfirefund. Miller, meanwhile, set up a SignUpGenius site listing gift cards and items the family could use — sheets, socks, towels, kitchen supplies, underwear — and inviting donors to purchase an item or two to help the family start over.
“They lost everything,” Miller said. “I can’t even imagine. Christmas or not Christmas.”
Dear Evanston, a community blog run by Evanston resident Nina Kavin, invited readers to purchase gift certificates to Blick to help replenish Mayra Jackson’s art supplies.
Nicholas’ receiving blanket was lost in the fire, which felt like a particularly cruel loss to Mayra and Latwian. Miller called NorthShore Evanston Hospital and told them the story. They told her to swing by the labor and delivery department.
“A nurse there, Diana, ran an old one and a new one down to me, no questions asked,” Miller said.
Neither blanket received a newborn Nicholas, but they represent a different sort of new beginning.
“We’re all overwhelmed,” said Ivette Camarano, Mayra Jackson’s older sister. “It’s just amazing the way everyone is coming together.”
The Jacksons are staying with Camarano until they can save up for a new place. When I spoke with her Monday, she was still fielding calls and messages from neighbors who wanted to help.
“I’m just so grateful I didn’t lose my family,” Camarano said. “I’ve never cried this hard and this bad in my whole entire life.”
Mayra Jackson is tired, but grateful.
For Miller, who whisked her family to safety.
“I got into her car and I just started to cry,” Mayra Jackson said. “I told her, ‘People don’t do this anymore. People don’t stop by and see if you’re OK. You were at my door and there were flames.’”
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be alive,” she said. “I feel like he’s our unsung hero right now.”
For a community who rose up in her family’s darkest hour.
“The whole story is the way we should all be to one another, right?” Miller said. “It’s amazing when we all drop what we’re doing to take care of somebody else. It’s what should happen.”
And it’s worth noting, and honoring, when it does. To remind us of our capacity and our calling, above all else, now more than ever, to take care of one another.
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