They were supposed to be getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Déja James, a sophomore at Kennedy High, was on winter break and had recently hung an honor roll certificate from the past semester on the wall. Déja’s mother, LaShawndra Polk, had finished her last minute Christmas shopping and hid the unwrapped gifts in her bedroom closet. LaShawndra decided to hold off wrapping the gifts until later because Déja kept poking her head into her mom’s room hoping to catch a glimpse.
Those gifts never got wrapped and LaShawndra and Déja didn’t celebrate Christmas in the comfort of their second floor, San Pablo apartment, but were instead lying on hospital beds in the Burn Center at Saint Francis Memorial.
LaShawndra, a 39-year-old hair stylist and teacher’s aide in West County high schools, was born and raised in Central Richmond. She and her daughter had just moved into the San Pablo apartment about five months ago.
The two were awakened in the early morning of December 23rd when a fire broke out in their living room. The details are still too raw for LaShawndra to explain exactly what happened, but she managed to give a brief account.
After realizing the apartment was on fire, LaShawndra said she and her daughter tried to escape through the front door. “There was only one way in and one way out,” she said. But the metal door handle had soaked up the fire’s heat and LaShawndra burned her hand trying to open the door.
They ran to the kitchen one room over where LaShawndra—wearing no more on her feet than a thin pair of socks—kicked out the window and climbed over the frame onto the outdoor hall. “We didn’t walk down the stairs,” she said while trying to recall how they got to ground level. “I can’t remember if we fell or jumped.”
LaShawndra remembers neighbors then lead her and her daughter to the front of the building. As firefighters arrived, LaShawndra was holding her daughter. She looked over at Déja who said her face felt hot.
Paramedics rushed the two to Doctors Medical Center where Déja’s father, Kimmie James, found them on stretchers with burns and tubes down their throats. On the ride in the ambulance LaShawndra remembers softly rubbing the back of Déja’s head to comfort her. “I didn’t want to hurt her because I knew her hair was scorched,” she said.
LaShawndra had blisters on her face and third degree burns on her arm and shoulder. Déja was in critical condition with third degree burns on her face, back, arms and foot.
Fire Investigator Randy Champion said the exact cause of the fire was undetermined. He said he believes the fire started in the living room and could have been related to the Christmas tree lights. LaShawndra says the tree was moist and watered, and that there was just one dim-lit strand hanging on the pine.
The fire gutted both the living room and the kitchen; the smoke and water destroyed everything else. Champion estimated total damages to the property and contents to be $65,000. Nothing was insured.
Two-weeks on, LaShawndra has been released from the hospital and has to face a whole new set of problems. Her daughter is still recovering in the burn center, she has no home, no ID, little money, and piling medical bills—which may or may not be covered. She explained all this while sitting in the hospital cafeteria, awkwardly jotting down notes with her left hand—she’s right-handed but her right arm and hand were burned severely in the fire and she’s lost feeling in the ends of three fingers. She said her medication has affected her memory, so she writes notes to herself throughout the day.
“Some things need to be done that only I can do,” LaShawndra said. She needs new California state IDs, social security cards, and birth certificates—one in Oakland, one in Martinez. “Everything costs money,” she said. “From a telephone call to a ride on BART.”
Déja’s 45-year-old father, Kimmie James, a North Richmond resident and community activist, tries to help as much as he can. He visits his daughter often, and he’s reached out to many friends and family for help. But he’s also limited in what he can do.
James has suffered from kidney problems since he was a child. His failing kidneys require him to get dialysis treatment three-times a week. James has been unemployed since a fire in North Richmond damaged his corner store—which had to be torn down—about two years ago.
“I’m in shock, I’m hurt, I’m mad,” James said over the phone. “But it’s not about me, it’s about my daughter.”
So far, Déja has had two blood transfusions and one surgery—a skin graft from her leg for the areas where she was severely burned.
LaShawndra is hopeful Déja will fully recover. “Yesterday she took about twelve steps,” LaShawndra said proudly. If Déja continues to eat well, doctors may soon remove her feeding tube. It’s not yet clear when she’ll be discharged from the hospital. Nor is it clear where she’ll go at that point.
“Some days she doesn’t want to talk, even with me,” LaShawndra said of Déja. “She’ll just put her hand out for me to hold it. I think it’s just the comfort of knowing her mother or father is here, even if she doesn’t want to talk.”
Apart from physically recovering from their injuries, LaShawndra and her daughter have to deal with the emotional trauma of the fire. “She wakes up sweating, as well as me,” LaShawndra said. “We think about it a lot. It’s like a constant nightmare.”
Déja often asks her mother about certain things she cherished, like her stuffed monkey Moto. LaShawndra has to remind her that all of it was lost in the fire.
LaShawndra describes her daughter as a “homebody.” She said Déja “loves being at home. She’s not out running on the streets.” And when she’s not at home, she’s been stepping and praise dancing at school. Déja performed on stage the week school closed for winter break. Pictures of her performance were lost in the fire too.
“I know she feels frustrated,” LaShawndra said. “She’s concerned about ‘where is home?'” But LaShawndra keeps telling her daughter, “when it’s time to go home, you’ll have a home to go to.”
LaShawndra, who can neither sit nor stand for long periods of time, is trying to find out if she qualifies for disability. But she is eager to get back to work. She says hair is her passion and she loves working with young adults.
Her first priority is to secure a new home. “With the therapy and recovery ahead, we will need our own space. We don’t have family with extra bedrooms,” she said.
To that end, LaShawndra and Déja’s father are thinking of creative ways to raise donations. They’re trying to organize a student dance in honor of Déja’s recovery and a potluck luncheon for adult friends and family.
LaShawndra gets teary-eyed when she thinks of the help that she and her daughter have gotten so far. From the firefighters and ambulance drivers to the hospital staff and family friends, LaShawndra said she was grateful.
“We’re asking for help from anyone that cares, if they know us or don’t know us,” LaShawndra said. “I’m not too proud to ask for it because it’s needed … In a major way.”
The family asks that any donations be made out to Déja M. James and deposited into the account below.
Savings Account # 48431115618
Kimmie James can be reached at (510) 776-6154, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.