Gift of life

A civic club’s service project, combined with the thoughtfulness of a friend, may have given a Florence woman the greatest gift imaginable this Christmas.

Shelia McPhail still has her house, her life and the lives of her two children-thanks to a smoke alarm given away a few weeks earlier by the Hillsboro Evening Lions Club.

McPhail said the alarm woke her around 2 a.m. Dec. 14. The living room in which she and her two children, Cody, 10, and Cassandra, 5, were sleeping was filled with smoke.

“It was so bad that my little girl, who was sleeping on the floor, was coughing because the smoke was already down to the floor,” McPhail said.

She said she jumped up and ran to check the wood-burning stove that she and a friend from Hillsboro, Jerry Thouvenell, had installed in her dining room earlier in fall.

But the wood stove wasn’t the problem. Then McPhail noticed a smoldering blanket next to the electric heater the family had been using that night.

Cody was under the blanket.

“The blanket had gotten too close to the heater and maybe one-fourth of the blanket was already smoldering,” she said. “I grabbed the blanket and threw it outside and proceeded to clean up the house.

“If it wasn’t for the smoke alarm, we probably would have slept right through it.”

McPhail believes the blanket was fire-retardant, but shudders to think what would have happened if the smoldering flame had reached the carpet on the floor.

It was a close call.

“It never actually ignited, but I figured any second it probably could have,” she said. “Especially if it got to the carpet.”

The Evening Lions Club had been distributing the smoke alarms since early fall, according to Kermit Ratzlaff, project organizer. Their goal was to ensure that every house in Hillsboro had at least one working smoke alarm.

“We’d been looking for a project that would be geared to the community,” Ratzlaff said, “and we wanted one that would be geared for all ages. Actually, I had heard of another Lions Club doing this and that gave me the idea.”

The club purchased some smoke alarms last year already and had advertised them.

Ratzlaff said only one person called in to ask for an alarm, so they decided to go door-to-door.

One day in October, Ratzlaff stopped at Thouvenell’s house. Thouvenell accepted a smoke alarm for himself and then asked if he could have a second one for a friend in Florence who had just installed a wood-burning stove in her home.

Ratzlaff gladly gave him one.

Thouvenell gave the alarm to McPhail about a week after a tragic fire took the lives of six members of the Richard Thayer family.

“I believe in smoke alarms but didn’t have one up before then,” McPhail said.

She laid this one on the mantel a few feet from the electric heater.

McPhail is grateful to Thouvenell and especially to the Lions Club for their thoughtfulness and generosity.

“They wouldn’t have had to give me one since I wasn’t from Hillsboro,” she said, “but they did. And I’m so thankful for that.”

Ratzlaff said the club distributed some 35 to 40 smoke alarms during the fall. Some were sold to club members, some given away, and some sold at a discount if a recipient needed more than one.

“In general, the people who can afford one would get one (on their own),” Ratzlaff said. “We went to places in Hillsboro where we thought some people might be economically lower, then went from door to door.

“A few people said they wouldn’t take one for free,” he said. “Others wanted more than one. Originally, we were giving only one per household unless they wanted to buy a second one.”

Or, in this case, give one to a friend in need.

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