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March 5, 2003

Couple grateful for outpouring

From: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, WI - 05 Mar 2003

Contributions for hearing-impaired fire victims overwhelm Red Cross
Last Updated: March 5, 2003

Hartford - John Manthe, who communicates using sign language, points to his heart to thank hundreds of people who helped him rebuild his life after fire destroyed his home and killed a dog that was trained to assist him.

"He says he is grateful and happy," said Chris Ziglinski, a sign-language interpreter. Ziglinski's hearing-impaired sister, Kari Abitz, lives with Manthe.

Red Cross workers, who are providing assistance, were overwhelmed by contributions after the Feb. 13 blaze, which consumed everything the couple owned, including equipment that allowed them to live independently.

"In all the years we've been responding to family fires, I have never seen the response this family has received from the community," said Debbie Thomas, an emergency services coordinator at American Red Cross of Greater Milwaukee.

"Calls have been coming in from all over southeast Wisconsin. My phone has been ringing off the hook. The family's needs have been met in the most exceptional ways."

After two weeks in motels, the couple and their two daughters, Kristina Abitz, 13, and Heather Manthe-Abitz, 9, are in a newly rented apartment, stocked with food, clothes and furniture sent by well-wishers.

Blackie, the couple's black Labrador retriever that died in the fire, is memorialized by a small statue on a living room table.

"IN MEMORY OF BLACKIE," says a plaque attached to plaster dog wearing angel wings and a halo.

"They all really miss him a lot," Ziglinski said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, said Paul Stephans, Hartford's deputy fire chief. The department's findings will likely be released in one to two weeks, he said.

"We do know that it started in the basement and that it was an accidental fire," Stephans said.

With such a large number of people volunteering to contribute household items, Thomas appointed a local coordinator to screen out duplications.

Heidi Henry, whose daughter, Nina, attends Rossman Elementary School with Heather, took charge of accepting and rejecting donations.

"If we had taken everything that people wanted to donate, we would have ended up with 15 couches and tables and dozens of chairs," Henry said. "People have really pulled together in this community to help them."
Businesses pitch in

Local businesses also have rallied to assist. Among them, Hartford's Sentry Foods donated a month's worth of groceries, Thomas said. Employees at Fashion Bug, a clothes shop at a local mall, chipped in to buy gift certificates for the family, she said. Area residents donated couches, tables, chairs, beds, linens, televisions, toasters, toys and cash.

An electronics device that enables the couple to make phone calls was donated by SBC Pioneers, a service organization for telecommunications workers, Ziglinski said.

The machine - known as a teletypewriter, or TTY - replaces one that Manthe and Abitz lost in the fire.

But finding a replacement for Blackie may prove more difficult. Specially trained dogs for the hearing impaired, called signal dogs, are scarce and expensive, Ziglinski said.

Getting a new signal dog could take months or even years, Ziglinski said. The couple are saving the cash donations they received, hoping they can afford to spend $1,000 to $1,300 for a new dog, she said.

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