When fire destroyed their home nearly two years ago, Chad and Kayla Stewart and their eight children found themselves on the receiving end of Spokane’s generosity.
That generosity, along with their religious faith, buoyed their spirits through the dark months it took to rebuild and reclaim normality.
Today, this close-knit family is safe in their year-old home near Chattaroy in north Spokane County. It was built on the site of the one that burned while the family was away at Sunday church services in January 2010.
All they could do was stand in the cold and watch as firefighters tried to stop the flames. They lost virtually everything save some photographs, which still smell of smoke.
“A lot of it is still a blur,” said Chad Stewart of the months following the fire.
During a recent visit to their home, the Stewart children showed off their musical talent and offered a tour of their home-school classroom. Their mom is their teacher.
Looking around the home, Blessing, 14, said, “It’s awesome.”
His appreciation becomes more meaningful when you consider that he is one of four Stewart brothers adopted by the Stewarts out of war-ravaged Liberia in West Africa.
The Stewarts are members of Northview Bible Church, and they said their faith led them to the decision to adopt.
When the fire came, they believed that their faith would guide them, and indeed, it played a prominent role in their recovery, they said.
“We were really blessed throughout the whole thing,” said Chad Stewart, a freelance animator who works from home.
Kayla Stewart described their path through the ordeal as “definitely God’s protection.”
First and foremost, no one was in the house when the fire broke out.
“It could always have been way worse,” Chad Stewart said. “We were all safe.”
Even as the embers were dying, they learned that a large house just a stone’s throw away was available for rent. They took it.
As word spread throughout the community, help poured in.
“We didn’t have a spatula to flip eggs,” Kayla Stewart said. “Within a week every child had a bed, bedding and clothing,” in addition to food, household supplies and other furniture.
Cyan Worlds Inc., which operates north of Spokane, opened its warehouse to take in the flood of donations. A cash fund was set up at their church.
“People were very, very generous,” Kayla Stewart said.
At one point, they had 15 bottles of ketchup. They had lost two pianos in the fire. They received offers for several replacements.
Extra belongings went to a single woman who was raising a disabled child in the Deer Park area and was recovering from fire loss, too. Other goods went to a world relief organization.
Chad Stewart used the cash mainly to replace family income lost because his home office was destroyed and the work of recovery kept him from concentrating on his freelancing. He has since re-established his income and has plenty of business coming in, he said.
The new house, which was completed eight months after the fire, features a modest-size living room and a dining room that holds a grand piano.
The kitchen is the largest room on the main floor, with a rectangular table flanked on either side by benches. Two armchairs anchor either end.
This really is a big happy family.
The boys – twins Mark and Matthew, 11; Peter, 12; and Blessing, 14 – share one bedroom. The girls – Megyn, 11, Sidny, 13, Taryn, 14, and Aubry, 16 – share another. “The kitchen is kind of our central gathering point,” said Taryn.
Initially, the Stewarts adopted the twins in 2003 through Angel’s Haven Outreach, based in California. The boys’ mother had died giving birth to the twins in the midst of a prolonged civil war. Matthew was severely undernourished, weighing only 11 pounds at age 2.
Two years later, the Stewarts adopted the older brothers after their father was no longer able to care for them. “This was a choice he made to save their lives, all of them,” Chad Stewart said. The war had gone on for 14 years.
For the girls, the adoptions have been an exercise in sharing. For the boys, having a safe environment is a source of inestimable joy.
There is no slacking off at the Stewart house. Instruction starts at 8:30 a.m. and continues to 4 p.m. on weekdays.
The downstairs classroom has eight wooden desks facing the walls and a central teaching station that the family calls “the mother board.”
A jigsaw puzzle donated to the family after the fire was pieced together and now hangs on a wall in the nearby family room.
There is little TV watching here.
The family travels together in a 15-passenger van, and the children participate in community activities, including a Christmas program last week involving the area’s home school cooperative group.
Blessing admitted having some stage fright prior to his appearance as a piano accompanist for a children’s chorus. In addition, he and sister Sidny performed a duet with Blessing on guitar and Sidny on flute.
All of the children have learned piano. Aubry, who has a driver’s license, teaches piano.
It may seem like the family is back to normal, and for the most part they are. But it wasn’t easy, they said. The children still get scared when they smell smoke or the home’s fairly sensitive smoke alarm goes off when food in the oven gets a little too hot.
Chad Stewart said, “We went through mood swings, frustration.”
They said their faith and the generosity of Spokane got them through it.
Kayla Stewart offered a wish for the community:
“Whatever you are experiencing in life, our hope as a family is that Christmas can be a time you are drawn to Christ and his gift of eternal life.”