Community rallies around WOHS teacher after house fire

Thousands of dollars have been donated to Jamee Gilson following a March 7 fire that destroyed her Lake County home.

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West Orange High School teacher Jamee Gilson has experienced plenty of tragedies in the last 16 years. Her husband died unexpectedly in 2002, and then two years later several damaging hurricanes swept across Central Florida, destroying the home Gilson shared with her son and daughter.

Then, on Monday, March 7, fire swept through her Lake County home just after she had fallen asleep around 10:30 p.m. Although no people were injured, one family pet died, a car was burned and the house was deemed unlivable.

Gilson is a sophomore AP Language and English Honors teacher this year. She has shaped countless lives in the classroom during her 23 years at WOHS, and many of those former students are now showing their gratitude in the way of monetary donations to their beloved teacher.

In the last week and a half, more than 130 people, including students past and present, parents, fellow teachers and strangers — have reached out to assist Gilson; a YouCaring account was set up after the fire, and within days the $5,000 goal was surpassed. On Tuesday, the amount was more than $6,200.

“Ms. Gilson has affected so many Warriors in a positive way over 20-plus years at West Orange that it only seems fitting that we are able to give back to her,” said Principal Douglas Szcinski. “She is an amazing teacher, and her community is able to show her that in her time of need.

Gilson said she has been overwhelmed by the support and the comments people have left for her on the crowdsourcing site.

“I can’t even tell you how absolutely humbled this makes me feel,” she said. “I’m one of those people who, I don’t take or accept help well because my role, as far as I’m concerned, is I’m the one who’s supposed to help people. That’s just my nature.”



Gilson had been asleep less than an hour when she heard her smoke detector going off, a banging noise on her window and a popping sound coming from her porch. She assumed it was her children either playing around on the porch or burning something in the kitchen. It was neither. She learned later that a neighbor had been at her window trying to wake her.

The fire originated with a surge protector on the porch of Gilson’s manufactured home. A nearby Rubbermaid storage shed containing chemicals such as weed killer exacerbated the flames, which destroyed the porch, a bathroom and the kitchen. What fire didn’t damage, the smoke and water did.

Her grandmother's organ was a casualty of the fire.
Her grandmother's organ was a casualty of the fire.

Some sentimental items did make it through unscathed, including her great-great-grandmother’s coffee grinder and a wooden music box her grandfather gave her. A majority of Gilson’s photographs were saved, too, as were some of her son’s and daughter’s childhood artwork.

Most of her cast-iron furniture is filthy but otherwise reusable. She was able to retrieve some of her clothes, as well.

She is amused that all of her “The Walking Dead” stuff made it. This includes a framed print of Norman Reedus, who plays Darryl Dixon on the AMC show, and a leather purse with the actor’s likeness on it.

“The strap burned, but the handles are OK, and my wallet is OK, and that’s a huge thing to not have to replace all that stuff,” Gilson said. “We laughed; Darryl is protecting the house.”

Gilson had inherited her grandmother’s china cup collection and was sad to see it ruined. Even more devastating, though, is her son’s terrier, Silver, perished in the smoke-filled house. She is grateful to the firefighters who performed CPR on the little dog in an attempt to revive her.

A glass tank that housed two pet rats, Emmy and Aeri, exploded, and Gilson hopes they simply ran off.

Another dog, Juliette, and a cat, Belle, escaped and were uninjured.

Jamee Gilson’s daughter’s torched car was parked on the side of the home near the porch and bathroom, which went up in flames.
Jamee Gilson’s daughter’s torched car was parked on the side of the home near the porch and bathroom, which went up in flames.



Gilson did not have homeowners insurance on this house, which she bought with a disaster loan she received after the hurricanes destroyed the previous one. She is still repaying the loan, which will make funding a new house more difficult. Repairing the home is not an option because “half of the house is a skylight,” Gilson said.

She hopes to put a down payment on a used manufactured home with the money the generous community is donating.

Lindsay Konradt, another West Orange teacher, set up the YouCaring account and posted last week:

“I spoke with Jamee today and she is overwhelmed by your outpouring of love and support for her during this time. We wanted to set a modest goal for our fundraising, but know that Jamee will need resources for a long time. So hopefully we can continue to rally! … This is an amazing community and school, and we wholeheartedly thank you for your continued support!”

While Gilson continues to clean up the property and make plans to have the house demolished, she and her pets are staying with a friend in Groveland. Her son and daughter-in-law, who were living with her, will stay with relatives.

“We have been so blessed and so fortunate,” Gilson said.

She said people have offered clothing and kitchen accessories, but she has nowhere to put them. Monetary donations are the most beneficial right now for helping Gilson get back on her feet.

“My neighbors, everyone’s been so wonderful, my friends at school,” she said. “I get text messages from the kids, from my friends, and then, of course, that fund is blowing my mind. Once they graduation you don’t hear from the again for a while, and it’s just as heartening to see my current students on that list. And then to see my former students checking in and donating money; it’s indescribable.

“It just makes me realize that I am making a difference – sometimes you get to the point where you don’t know anymore, but then something like this happens,” Gilson said. “People I don’t know, perfect strangers (are donating).”

“I cannot believe how much we have raised to help my mom,” Caitlin Gilson wrote on the YouCaring site. “This has been the most inspiring thing that I have ever seen and the best thing to come out of a really bad situation. I am blessed that my mom touched so many lives and that people who don't even know her are willing to help us. I wish I could meet each and every one of you in person and hug you and tell you how much your donations and your prayers and thoughts and kind words have meant to our family. … Mom wants everyone to know how much she loves you and how much you all mean to her. She could never get through this without your incredible support. … You all are giving her her life back and that's something she will be eternally grateful for.”

Karen Carroll Riley, Gilson’s mother, also commented: “… She is so deeply touched by the outpouring of love and good wishes extended to her by friends, family and especially by those she has never met but who stepped forward to help someone in their time of need. … Her spirits are lifted because of each and every one of you!”

Gilson is thankful that she had up-to-date batteries in her smoke detector and said she hopes residents who don’t have one will call the local fire department.

“They will come out and put them in for free,” she said. “Get smoke detectors. I can’t even tell you how necessary that is.”


Contact Amy Quesinberry Rhode at [email protected].


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