By JOSHUA THOMAS
For The Recorder
FORT PLAIN -- Sunday morning, children of the community came together at Victorious Life Church to create get-well cards for Dennis Abare Jr., the 8-year-old recently injured in a devastating Center Street fire.
Later in the day, a benefit was held to help raise money for Abare's medical expenses.
At the card event, "we filled every seat," with kids using markers, glitter and construction paper to create get-well wishes for Abare, said event organizer Janel Hearn, who sprang to action as soon as she was made aware of Abare's story with the goal of letting him know that people are thinking of him.
Hearn noted that herself, her husband and two friends will travel Friday to SUNY Upstate in Syracuse to deliver the cards to Abare.
Hearn's kids, Conner and Isabella, nursery school students of Little Friends in Canajoharie, also made cards with 12 classmates, which will be delivered along with Sunday's creations.
Fort Plain fireman Mike Higgins was also present Sunday morning, providing fire safety tips and handing out educational items, including plastic fire hats and a bag containing educational coloring books, crayons and a ribbon.
The event also provided the opportunity for children to familiarize themselves with a firefighters' uniform, which, when topped with a mask -- which Higgins said keeps the fireman from speaking -- which may seem terrifying to kids in a panicked situation.
Higgins also explained that while many people think that firefighters don't feel emotions, he said the opposite is true, as many of them have children of their own.
"It's horrifying and terrible," he said of what happened to Abare, adding, "and we don't like to see children hurt at all."
In his six years with the Fort Plain Fire Department, Higgins said that he's seen about 25 kids injured, some having started the blaze by playing with matches or flammable material, the rest living in properties that caught fire.
"It's very important to get the kids educated," Higgins said, explaining that the Fort Plain Fire Department seeks such events to use as educational opportunities.
A benefit was held Sunday to raise money for Abare's ongoing medical care.
The event, hosted by the Canajoharie-Fort Plain Elks Lodge No. 2621 featured food, a live raffle, a Chinese auction, and a variety of games and activities for children, some of them fire prevention-focused. The Fort Plain Fire Department presented a fire safety demonstration, and a victim impact speaker talked about fire-related dangers.
With expenses adding up fast, including travel to SUNY Upstate Medical Center, where Abare Jr. is being treated, the need was immediate, and as a result, Jennifer Passage and Kalley Lee "have been getting up at 7 a.m. and staying up until 2 a.m." each day planning the benefit, which they decided to organize the same day the fire struck.
"Lots of talking, lots of planning, lots of networking," went into the organization process, Lee noted.
A group of about 20 volunteers solicited for raffle items, collecting about 70, which were spread out across the Elks' banquet room Sunday. There were also live raffle items, including a flower-decorated cake by Momma K's Cakes, along with a successful bake sale.
Dennis Abare Jr.'s parents, Dennis Sr. and Lisa were present, visibly touched by the show of support for their son. "I want to say 'thank you' for all the support we've been given," said Abare Sr., who said that the community's encouragement has been instrumental in Abare Jr.'s recovery.
"He's pretty happy about it," said Abare Sr., of the benefit, continuing, "he wanted to be here."
He noted that Abare Jr., who was supposed to watch the benefit via Skype, but spent most of the day sleeping following a second skin graft surgery Thursday, will be filled in about the day's events.
Abare Sr., said that Dennis' skin graft surgery went well, and he's been moved from the ICU to an 11th floor, children's unit room.
Since the fire, Abare's mother, Lisa, has been at the hospital constantly with her son, while his father, Dennis Abare, Sr., is starting to use his hands again after they were burned during his son's extraction from the blaze. On Sunday, he noted that his hands are still red and cracked in spots, but are mostly healed.
Abare Sr. saved his son from the fire, which burned down the 63 Center St. garage and significantly damaged the homes on either side. "I would've done it for anybody," said Abare Sr., who said he was on his way across the street when he realized his son was trapped in the burning structure.
His oldest daughter screamed and he came running.
At first, he said he tried to enter the garage through the door, and could see that Dennis' "legs were already on fire." He was forced to break into the garage, explaining that with all the flames and smoke, "it was hard to find him."
"He let out a little whimper and that's how I found him in there."
Abare, Jr. sustained second degree burns to his chest and torso, and third degree burns to his buttocks, groin and legs.
Abare, Sr. noted on Sunday that Dennis recently had to have a tube inserted to administer medication.
Despite his traumatic experience, Abare Sr., said his son "is doing pretty good. He's in very high spirits."
"He's fighting," Abare Sr., said, noting that the community's support, which has included many people sending him cards and get-well wishes, helps to "keep his mind off things."
"He's a little boy who is really resilient," Lee said about Abare, explaining that he's a tough, bike-riding little guy who she's sure will make the best of his situation. She said, "even if he's in a wheelchair, it'll be an extension of who he is."
Though Lee said he's "lonely, and of course wants to get out and enjoy his summer," cards and letters have been uplifting. Abare is currently fascinated by all things Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
At home in Fort Plain, Abare Sr. is focused on fixing up the family's Center St. home -- which includes building handicapped ramps -- for his son's return, which, according to Lee, might still be a significant amount of time down the road, as he may be required to remain in the hospital for a month and a half. Following his release, he may be moved from the hospital directly to a rehabilitation facility.
"We really appreciate the community coming together like they have," said Abare Sr.