By Harry Minium

Jackie Yaya left her apartment in so much of a hurry to buy dishwashing soap that she didn't tell her 13-year-old brother she was leaving.

She wore shorts, a hoodie and sandals on a cold day for a trip that should have taken 15 minutes.

But minutes later, her mother called. "Are you at home?" she asked. Yaya replied no, and her mom responded, "Thank God. You need to come home, our house is on fire."

"When I hopped in my car, I could see the smoke, a huge cloud of smoke," Yaya said. "I was praying that it wasn't that bad. But it was that bad."

The apartment, as well as the one above, were fully engulfed in flames.

As firemen extinguished the fire, Yaya, her brother, Angel Aguliar, and their mom, Grisela Sosa, watched and cried. They stood there for 10 hours, three days before Thanksgiving, stunned at having lost every physical thing of value in their lives - family photos, letters from Sosa's grandfather, passports, clothes, shoes, computers and their furniture.

The next morning, Jeff Tanner, dean and professor of marketing at the Strome College of Business, read about the fire. He thought Yaya might be enrolled in the business school and asked Connie Merriman, the associate dean of undergraduate programs, to investigate.

When it was confirmed, half a dozen members of the Strome College went into action. Michelle Carpenter, a senior lecturer of marketing, headed the effort. Tanner and Merriman spoke with John Barker, who handles IT for the school, got a loaner laptop for Yaya, a necessity for her to remain in school.

Carpenter got clothes for Yaya and her brother from the Strome College's Big Blue Closet, which is intended to provide professional-looking clothes to graduating seniors who are in need.

The AMA Strome Marketers, a student group, provided Yaya with items raised in a food drive, including snacks, microwaveable meals and personal hygiene items.

Yaya was encouraged to continue her classes, including business calculus and macro-economics, which aren't easy courses under the best of circumstances. Her professors provided whatever assistance she needed as she coped with the situation.

Yaya was also taking two dance classes, and the Dance Department provided clothes and food, as did her sorority, Tri Sigma.

"This was truly a team effort," Carpenter said. "Not just the Strome College, but everyone - the Dance Department and Jackie's sorority.

"This is definitely very typical of the Strome Business College. We work well together and support each other. What Dean Tanner did was so typical of how he cares about students. He's very in tune with what's happening."

Carpenter also reached out to her social circle at Trinity Lutheran in Newport News and Scout BSA Troop 242, of which her children are members. In all, they donated two full baskets of clothes and gift carts to Walmart and Chick-fil-A. She and her husband, Chip, delivered the items to Yaya and her family, who are staying at a Chesapeake hotel. A second trip two weeks later resulted in five more bags of donated clothing for the family.

Jolliff Middle School in Chesapeake, which Angel attends, also donated a laptop, clothes and gift cards to him.

Yaya said the family is overwhelmed by the kindness of so many in the middle of a pandemic.

"We appreciate it so much," she said. "God bless them. It's good to know that people who have their own lives and have their own problems have big enough hearts to help people when they are going through a tough time."

Yaya said the cause of the blaze is unknown. Fire officials told the family that a probable electrical malfunction caused an explosion in the kitchen. Angel was in a back bedroom doing an online class when he heard the explosion and an alarm, but he kept reading because he thought his sister was home.

When smoke began to enter his room, he opened the door. There and there was so much smoke he saw nothing but darkness. He crawled out the apartment, breathing heavily.

He immediately called 911, then began knocking on doors. Firefighters arrived just in time to save two children who were trapped in an upstairs apartment.

"Losing physical things is hurtful," Yaya said. "But losing someone's life would have been so much harder to deal with."

Her family is no stranger to tough times. Sosa, a single mother and a supervisor at Hampton Roads Transit's Norfolk office, moved from New Jersey to Virginia three years ago after her fiancé and father both died within a short period of time.

"My mom has worked two or three jobs at times," Yaya said. "She's worked so hard to give us everything. Usually, we're the ones taking care of everyone else. All of my aunts and uncles have lived with us at one time or another."

Now her family is the one in need. Their insurance company said it will pay for the hotel through the end of the month. Sosa has been attempting to purchase a house, but the market is hot and she was recently outbid for a home.

If they don't find a house or an apartment by Dec. 31, they'll move in with an aunt, who has a small home with three children of her own.

Yaya has a Go-Fund-Me Page, which has so far raised $5,950 from 136 donors. Carpenter urges everyone from ODU and elsewhere to donate.

"This family is still in need," she said.

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