‘Helping those who help us’

Orlando Ware returned to work Wednesday after his home was destroyed in a fire in North Tampa last week.

Orlando Ware and his family were surprised when a neighbor began beating on their door around 11:30 p.m. May 28. 

When Ware answered, his neighbor told him there was a fire in the building and urged him to evacuate.

“I didn’t grab anything,” Ware said. “I just grabbed my family and got out.”

Ware was among those whose condos were destroyed last week in North Tampa after a three-alarm fire engulfed 12 condos and injured two police officers and two firemen. 

At the time, the American Red Cross vowed to help the families affected by the fire, but Ware, a custodial worker for USF Physical Plant, also received help from his co-workers when he stopped by the USF Gibbons Alumni Center on Tuesday morning.

Walter Jennings, Ware’s boss and facilities manager at the Alumni Center, said he received a call from his assistant that morning telling him Ware had called and said his condo was ruined in the fire that Jennings and many of his co-workers had seen on the news that same morning.

After getting the OK from his bosses, Jennings sent out an email to the rest of the staff, informing them of Ware’s situation and suggesting ways they could help.

Jennings said he had no idea his email would spark the outpour of support Ware would receive from the rest of the university community.

“I knew if I was concerned, the entire building he services would be concerned as well,” Jennings said. “Orlando never asked for anything, but we knew, with he and his family losing everything that they lost, that there had to be some needs that we could meet.”

Ware, along with his fiancee and her 4-year-old daughter, were forced to spend the night of the fire in his future mother-in-law’s house while first responders battled the blaze at his condo complex.

When he was finally able to return to his condo early the next day, Ware asked his fiancee and her daughter to remain outside while he tried to salvage what was left.

Ware said he remembers seeing a lot of old, irreplaceable photographs destroyed, along with the memories they encapsulated. 

“When I first saw (the condo) I just saw how fast things can change,” Ware said. “One day, your life is OK and the next day, things are just destroyed.”

He became even more upset when he entered his stepdaughter’s room to find her toys and possessions ruined by smoke and fire damage.  All he could salvage was part of the bedframe and a scooter she loved to ride.

“I just thought about how she would feel about her toys and what’s going on with the house,” Ware said.

Melanie Jackson, an administrative specialist who also works in the Alumni Center, saw Jennings’ email and wanted to help out Ware.

On the advise of a co-worker, Jackson put Ware’s story up on the USF Talk email service, asking the faculty, staff and students subscribed to the service for any donations they could give.

“We look at pictures of his little girl and we talk about his family; he’s definitely a part of our family here,” Jackson said. “He takes care of us, so we were trying to take care of him.”

In all, they were able to collect more than $250 in cash, some gift cards and toys and clothing for Ware’s stepdaughter from people across the university.

After Ware’s co-workers had all the donations collected Tuesday, Jennings asked Ware and his fiancee to come to the Alumni Center so they could see how he was doing. 

When he arrived, they surprised Ware with the donations and words of encouragement.

“There are two different sides to this issue: you have a person who has physically lost items, but also the mental strain and stress that he and his family have gone through,” Jennings said. “I thought presenting the donations in that way would address both sides of that.”

Normally a very humble and quiet man, Ware said he was overwhelmed by the large show of support he received from his “USF family.”

“I was just so happy,” Ware said. “It felt like I could say thank you a thousand times and it was just not enough … I knew a lot of people cared, but so many people treated me like family.”

Perhaps the most appreciative person was his stepdaughter. Ware said he is most grateful for everything his co-workers were able to get for her.

“When I gave her the toys, she was just screaming, ‘Thank you, thank you. I got my toys back,’” he said. 

Ware and his family have been transferred into a new condo by their landlord, but have had to start from scratch, shopping for new housing supplies and creating new memories to replace what was lost in the fire.

He said the encouraging words from his co-workers have inspired him to try to turn this low point in his life into something constructive.

“Walter Jennings told me this could be a new milestone, a new start,” Ware said. “This is almost like a reset to me. Sometimes things happen for the bad, but sometimes things happen for the better … Even though something bad happened, it’s like a new opportunity.”