Wish Book

Wish Book: ‘Foster grandma’ rebuilding life after condo fire

Yvonne Simpson, 75, stands in front of a window outside of her burned-out apartment on Dec. 4, in Plantation. She is a foster grandparent at Plantation Elementary.
Yvonne Simpson, 75, stands in front of a window outside of her burned-out apartment on Dec. 4, in Plantation. She is a foster grandparent at Plantation Elementary. shannonlkaestle@gmail.com

The worst part about the fire that erupted inside Yvonne Simpson’s second-floor condo last May wasn’t that it destroyed her clothes, ruined most of her earthly belongings and left her homeless.

She says what hurt the most was when a Plantation firefighter presented the body of her 3-year-old dachshund Sheba, wrapped in plastic.

“Every time I think about it I want to yell and holler,” says Simpson, 75, who now shuttles around in a green 2000 Toyota Corolla with clothes, books and papers stuffed into black garbage bags. “I was in complete shock.”

Since May 13, when Simpson says she was told by inspectors that wiring in her wall short-circuited, she has tried to recapture normal life. She lives with her daughter in a three-bedroom apartment shared with two grandsons, sleeping in the 5-year-old’s room. During down times, she wrangles with her insurance company over repairs.

I was in complete shock

Yvonne Simpson

And yet, five days a week, she arrives every morning at Plantation Elementary where she works as a foster grandparent. The job, created decades ago by Senior Corps, is akin to being a teacher’s assistant. She’s currently helping in Sarah Hilton’s kindergarten class of 14 boys and girls, some of whom call her grandma. But when the dismissal bell rings, it’s back to the rigmarole of insurance, permits and waiting.

“She’s very devoted to the children. Even going through what she went through, she is in school every day,” said Jeannette Cohen, the director of Broward Impact’s Foster Grandparent Program and the person who nominated Simpson for the Miami Herald Wish Book. “The teachers adore her. The children are crazy for her. To go through losing her home, sometimes it’s the people that help others who never get the help themselves.”

Simpson says she has worked at the school for 14 years, going back to just after she was laid off from her data entry job at a utilities company. Hilton says Simpson helps as a listener and adviser, reads to students and assists with special class projects. “She is like my right hand. Each day we spend together is a blessing to my students,” Hilton said.

One of the perks is that the job pays her only a $2.65 an hour stipend, which allows her to keep receiving a Social Security check. Still, between the two payments, Simpson worries about whether she’ll be able to afford necessary improvements once insurance finishes restoring her condo. Right now, it’s a gutted shell without drywall to separate rooms. Simpson can see inside, but she doesn’t know how they’ll turn over the condo once it’s ready.

“It’s a skeleton, so I’m in a bind,” she says peering in through a screen door.

Sometimes it's the people that help others who never get the help themselves

Jeannette Cohen, director of Broward Impact’s Foster Grandparent Program

Simpson says she tried to apply for grants to help her pay for work to her unit, but those efforts went bust because along with her clothes, furniture, linens, kitchen appliances, bric-a-brac and two laptops, the blaze also destroyed important documents like her birth certificate and her mortgage.

“It was stressing me out so I gave up,” she said.

Simpson is waiting for news of when she can move back in. But she isn’t sure what, if any, appliances will be replaced by insurance. She could also use help furnishing her apartment. She still has a $268-a-month storage unit stuffed with items from her home, but she knows much of it is worthless due to smoke damage. She just can’t bear to throw away what’s left of her belongings.

“It’s sentimental, I guess,” she said.

When the fire first happened, an office secretary, Sonia Washington, found two weeks of clothes to keep Simpson going. Now, Cohen, the director of Foster Grandparents, hopes a few more good Samaritans will come along.

“I feel horrible for her,” she said. “Yvonne is just a really special woman.”

How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook

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