‘This is temporary’: perspective and perseverance power recovery after Menasha apartment building fire

By Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Jo Ann Harris in a selfie.

Jo Ann Harris stood outdoors in flip flops and comfy clothes amid a Wisconsin winter afternoon, in “total shock” as a police officer told her the building she lives in was on fire.

She had left the apartment that morning for doctor’s appointments, on a seemingly ordinary Wednesday, never dreaming of the doubt and obstacles she’d come home to.

Yet just over a week later, she’s standing strong with the keys to a new apartment – and a newfound appreciation for those organizations that help others, like the American Red Cross.

“There’s so much good I haven’t been able to focus on the down times,” Harris said.

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, fire ripped through the Jefferson Court Apartments, ultimately displacing people from 24 units in the residential building near Jefferson Park in Menasha. In the initial response, Red Cross disaster teams established lodging, meals and immediate needs at a nearby hotel for Harris and nearly 30 other people.

Disaster teams from the American Red Cross at the scene of an apartment building fire in January 2021 in Menasha. Dozens of residents received relief and recovery help from Red Cross and partner agencies. Photo by Tom Nimsgern / American Red Cross

Harris moved into her apartment in 2016, up from Hammond, Ind. near her hometown of Chicago. In Menasha, she found a good career in customer service, and an apartment ideally located next to “beautiful” Lake Winnebago and run by landlords she had started to tease as “like my mother and father in Wisconsin.”

The fire took away that ideal apartment. But Harris has been able to pull a few priceless items from the wreckage – her family photographs central among them – and find perspective parallel to the pain.

“I’ve been really trying to keep it together. It’s a strain,” she said.

“But I’m very grateful, because God has made a way for people that don’t know me to be empathetic and show they care, show a caring spirit. You don’t always find that and the whole world is going through [a pandemic] right now. This happened, this fire, but then people helped, got me in a hotel, you’re eating every day, you’re making a way to move. I’m so grateful.”

Red Cross and a network of local service agencies – LEAVEN, St. Vincent de Paul, United Way, Salvation Army – rallied early on to see what recovery resources may be jointly available, with the future of the Menasha apartment building uncertain.

Your generosity brings relief in times of need to people in our community. Thank you for your support.

Harris has been a big advocate of LEAVEN since she arrived in Menasha and called them “a rock” this past week. In short order, she’s also grown close with Red Cross team members, like Sharon Holt, a volunteer from Combined Locks who has helped her with calls and reconnections to the numerous agencies that become disjointed after something as dire as a home fire.

Harris shows off the keys to a new place, just a week after experiencing a fire.

As Harris talked up getting the keys to a new place in Appleton, she acknowledged the gravity of the whole fire may yet come to her doorstep. She promised to keep moving ahead though, turning up the Marvin Sapp gospel songs when she needs a boost and reminding herself that she’s a witness to that lesson her mother often shared – help others because you, too, may one day need help.

“The representatives of the Red Cross, they give you empathy and they are on the frontline of helping,” Harris said. “Sometimes, we drop all our load on them, like they’re our therapists. I look at them, like, ‘They’re here to help me. They’re giving me their time.’ They helped me realize this is temporary.”

Your support of the American Red Cross enables our disaster teams to bring emergency relief to people like Jo Ann. Thank you for considering a donation to our humanitarian mission.