Upheaval can't halt holidays

Burned out, a family resettles just in time for Christmas.

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Even in the Red Cross shelter, where they spent a month, the Jordan family - Jamie, Madison, Tyler, Kevin - managed smiles.

Tiny Tim has nothing on Tyler Jordan.

Tyler's suffering may not be Dickensian. But his redemption is sweeter because his story is not fiction.

Last month, the 10-year-old, who has Asperger's syndrome and is legally blind, was returning from a Thanksgiving parade with his mother and sister. They got off the El and saw smoke coming from their block in Upper Darby.

"I heard that fire truck," said Tyler. "That was loud."

Then his father, Kevin Jordan, ran over and threw his arms around them.

He had been in the shower, getting ready for his regular night shift in receiving at Sam's Club, when he heard someone knocking.

He thought it might be his wife and children. "But the banging got real loud," he said. He threw on a towel and found firefighters kicking in the door.

"Get out. Now!" they told him. He grabbed some clothes and ran.

Outside, he saw his next-door neighbor being wheeled away on a gurney. "He was completely burned from the waist down," Jordan recalled. The man, who had terminal cancer, died the next day, he said.

Since that night, Jordan, 29; his wife (and high school sweetheart) Jamie Jacobs, 28; Tyler, and his 5-year-old sister, Madison, have been homeless, living in Red Cross House in West Philadelphia.

"There were emergency trucks, then we walked here and that's how we were saved," Madison explained, efficiently, over her last lunch in the shelter's cafeteria: chicken, asparagus, mashed potatoes and cherry pie.

"We love this place. We can play in the playroom and play in the playground. And," she laughed, "our imagination is, we're going to get swallowed by a big monster!" (The prospect didn't seem to faze her.)

Given the upheaval in their lives these last four weeks, the family is lucky to be so resilient.

Many families aren't, said Maureen Tomoschuk, senior director of emergency services at Red Cross House. The 25-room facility opened three years ago and consistently has 80 percent occupancy. In addition to fire-prevention education, the staff provides child care and parenting advice, assists with the search for housing and employment, and makes referrals to city agencies and, when necessary, to drug and alcohol services.

"I've heard about all the problems with the higher-ups at the Red Cross," Jordan said, referring to the agency's problems over the last few years with mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. "But everyone we met here was so great."

"I don't know where we'd be without them," Jacobs said.

Many of the 384 victims of fire and other disasters who stayed there last year have complicated lives, explains Tomoschuk. Many, like the Jordan family, are hard-working. "But they are living paycheck to paycheck." When a fire breaks out or a building collapses, they are left with literally nothing.

In the basement of Red Cross House, where residents can keep their belongings, all but a few storage compartments are empty. One family's contains a paper grocery bag filled with clothes.

The first night, Jacobs, with police escort, was allowed into the apartment to retrieve jackets, pajamas, shoes and some underwear for her husband, who had not had time to put any on before escaping.

The fire - probably caused by a space heater in their neighbor's apartment - was devastating, but could have been much worse. Everyone but their neighbor got out safely.

"At first, the whole thing was so surreal," Jacobs recalled. "I didn't realize we were homeless for four days, when our Red Cross caseworker said something like, 'Well, when you're homeless . . . ' "

"We're not homeless," she had said reflexively.

"Technically," the caseworker told her gently, "you are. You have no home to go to."

"That's when it dawned on me," Jacobs said. "We really don't have a home. And it made me sad."

The family's $600 in savings was wiped out by the end of the first week. Clothes and transportation ate up a lot. "And we had to buy basic things that you don't even think about. Toothpaste, deodorant, braille paper . . . "

Today, one month after the fire, the family is celebrating Christmas in a new apartment.

The two-bedroom flat has a small balcony that the cat, Jinx, promptly used as a high-diving platform when the family brought him to his new home. He returned the following morning.

An uncle brought them a Christmas tree on Sunday. And a friend of a relative is donating a queen bed, Jacobs said. Until it arrives, the children are sleeping on an air mattress and she's camping on a couch that her husband found in a thrift store.

They had planned to buy Tyler the Xbox 360 game system he wanted. "But we're tapped," Jordan said. "We're going to save up and get it for his birthday in August."

Madison is trying to be realistic about her expectations. "I want a real bunny or a dog," she said. "But I know it's a big responsibility."

Santa probably is bringing her toys, books, and an Avril Lavigne CD instead.

Money will be tight for a while. But, Jordan said, they'll manage. His bi-weekly check ($800 after taxes) will come the day after Christmas. A friend has given them a gift card to get groceries. And they're hoping to get their $475 security deposit back from the landlord.

"We're lucky," he said. "No one got hurt."

Tyler came into the living room, singing the jingle from Kay Jewelers, "Every kiss begins with Kay," and cupping his hands as if he were holding a newborn chick.

"I give you pieces of my heart," he said. "Have a great Christmas. Have a tremendously good holiday."


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com