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Fire leaves Topekan Juanita Cardenas and her 4 children homeless

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Juanita Cardenas was 11 when she lost her younger brother to a house fire.

Now Cardenas finds herself helping her four children – ages 9, 6, 4 and 1 – cope with the trauma of being left homeless due to a fire.

The fire was reported at around 4:15 a.m. on June 17 at their home, 1105 SW Western Ave. No one was hurt.

Cardenas says the fire cost her and her family almost everything they owned because their belongings were not covered by insurance. The lost items included an autographed Patrick Mahomes jersey that Cardenas won at a charity auction, she said.

Investigators believe the fire was intentionally started, although this is still under investigation, Topeka Fire Marshal Todd Harrison said. No arrests were made.

‘It could have been worse’

Fortunately, Cardenas said, she and her children were elsewhere the night of the blaze.

Only the two family dogs were at home and they were rescued by Topeka firefighters.

“It could have been worse,” Cardenas said.

She knows it from experience.

Cardenas recalled watching from the back seat of a police car in the late morning of December 12, 1999, as a fire destroyed the house where his family lived at 118 Blaine Ave. in Galesburg, Illinois. Her brother, Joe, 3 years old Younge, died of smoke inhalation.

Greg A. Hillier, then 23, pleaded guilty to the fire and was sentenced to jail in December 2000 for crimes including manslaughter and aggravated arson.

Hillier admitted to setting the fire by throwing a lit cigarette over a pile of clothes because he was rejected by Younge’s mother and Juanita Cardenas, said Paul Mangieri, then state attorney for Knox County, in Illinois.

Mangieri told the Galesburg Register-Mail that he did not think Hillier intended to kill the boy.

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In May 2011, a pregnant Juanita Cardenas was woken up early one morning by her pit bull, King, who helped her escape as a fire damaged the house she then lived in Galesburg, the Register-Mail reported. Investigators were unable to determine the cause of the fire, the newspaper reported.

Cardenas said she moved about five and a half years ago to Topeka, where she works for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Since the fire on June 17, she said she has been trying to find permanent accommodation while she and her children stay in her boyfriend’s two-bedroom apartment in Carbondale. Their dogs are housed at the Helping Hands Humane Society in Topeka, Cardenas said.

“If they want to draw, let them draw”

Children of different ages tend to react differently to traumatic experiences such as being made homeless by a fire, said Abby Callis, director of quality outcomes and training for the service center and orientation for Topeka’s family.

Very young children may not say anything at all, instead drawing pictures or pretending their dollhouse is on fire, Callis said.

Regardless of their age, children should be encouraged to process their emotions about traumatic events in the ways they prefer, the two most popular being conversation and drawing, Callis said.

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“If they want to draw, let them draw,” she said. “If they want to talk, let them talk.”

Sharing factual information with children about traumatic events can also be helpful from a treatment perspective, Callis said.

“It’s good to tell the kids ‘We are not going to live there anymore,’” she said.

Callis suggests that trusted adults help children try to deal with their emotions during traumatic times by asking questions such as “How are you?” Or “How was that to you?”

Some kids won’t want to share their emotions, and that’s okay, Callis said.

Topeka Fire Department investigators believe the blaze that ravaged Juanita Cardenas' home may have been started on purpose, but investigations are ongoing.  The family was not at home the night of the fire.

“Rise from the ashes”

As Cardenas and her family face homelessness, her friend, Jenna Meyer, raises money to help them.

She started a GoFundMe page, titled “Juanita: Rising From the Ashes”, which aims to raise $ 5,000.

“Juanita and her 4 children now have nowhere to call home,” Meyer wrote on this page. “They have no clothes to wear. They have no beds to sleep on. These children now have no toys to play with. How humble of thought.”

Cardenas and his family have “a ton of reconstruction to do,” the page adds.

“So here we are, as a village, to take care of one of our own,” he says. “The funds raised will allow Juanita and her family to find a safe place to call home.”


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