A week ago Saturday was a slice of heaven for Gloria Thomas, who married Jeffrey Swain in Bethel Tabernacle Church.
Three days later, her life was hell.
Tuesday, flames tore through the 2½-story apartment building she lived in at 118 Wakefield Ave. in the Central Park neighborhood. She had been sharing two three-bedroom apartments with two daughters, a friend and 16 grandchildren.
Luckily no one was hurt, but the family found themselves homeless, with all of their possessions destroyed. One of the children had lit a match, Thomas said, which had set a bed on fire on the first floor.
Irreplaceable photographs. Thomas’ wedding gown. Clothes. Furniture and toys. All gone.
“What a honeymoon,” Thomas said.
Thursday, the three women and 12 of the children – four were sent to other family members – filled three motel rooms at University Manor on Main Street, near Bailey Avenue.
They were initially put up there for two days, but Thursday the American Red Cross extended their stay until Monday and doubled the number of rooms to help make things more comfortable.
Life hasn’t been easy for Thomas, a 48-year-old mother of seven and grandmother of 20.
The Buffalo native works 15 hours a week for the Food Bank of Western New York, taking care of Goodwill’s food pantry. Her salary is augmented by food stamps and Medicaid.
The rest of the time, she said, she helps take care of her grandchildren, whose ages run from 8 months to 15 years.
Thomas said she cuts corners by getting free commodities to cook with and by buying clothes at Goodwill. That is hard on the older, more fashion-conscious children, she said.
“My 15-year-old granddaughter is like, ‘Grandma, my friends are going to laugh at me,’ and I explain to her that this is all Grandma can afford, and that I have to stretch what I can do for them,” Thomas said.
She also carries the painful memory of what happened in August 2011, when her son Joshua, 21, was stabbed to death by a co-worker at Goodwill.
Despite her troubles, Thomas said things had been looking up ... until the fire.
“I struggled, and came a long ways to get where I am. My kids say I’m a perfect square: I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and my life goes for my grandbabies,” Thomas said.
Polla Milligan, the food bank’s food drive coordinator and grant writer, choked up talking about her co-worker.
“Gloria is such a caretaker for people who need assistance at that pantry. She’s just such an empathetic person, and it almost makes it more tragic to happen to someone so on the right side of good,” she said.
Both of Thomas’ daughters, Ellen, who lived upstairs, and Elizabeth, who lived with her mother, stay home with their children, with Ellen receiving Supplemental Security Income and public assistance.
Thomas said three of her children are staying with their father, while a fourth is with her cousin. She is worried that the family may not be able to stay together now.
Thomas said the shelter could be the family’s next option, but she’s hoping that it’s not.
“It’s not feasible for us. I don’t know,” she said, her voice breaking. “I just take it hour by hour.
“This is very devastating. I went from a real high,” Thomas said, thinking back on her recent wedding day, “to a real low.”
Thomas said that, besides a place to live, the extended family needs furniture, beds, Pampers, food staples – “pretty much everything to rebuild with,” she said.
The Food Bank employees have taken up a collection to help. To make a monetary donation, make a check out to “Fund for Gloria Thomas,” and mail to Fund for Gloria Thomas, Buffalo Community Federal Credit Union, 1155 William St., Buffalo, NY 14206.
For further information, call 935-6693.