PORTSMOUTH — Something terrible happened to the Sweeney family on Feb. 22.
Then, a week later, something wonderful took place that Kevin Sweeney says has forever changed his outlook on life.
About 400 neighbors, friends, family members and perfect strangers came out to Common Fence Point Saturday to take a “Lap of Love” walk in support of the Sweeneys, who lost everything in a raging fire at their two-story Summit Road home.
Mr. Sweeney said he and his family — wife Aimee and sons Quinn, 4, and Shaun, 3 — were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.
“The community has been unbelievable — more than I ever could have imagined,” said Mr. Sweeney. “I’m one of those people that as time has gone by, I might see more of the bad in people and this is something that’s really turning me around. I’ll raise my kids differently because of this experience. I’ll interact differently now with people, without a doubt.”
Caroline Dooley, one of the event’s organizers, said she also couldn’t get over how many people turned up at the VFW Hall on Anthony Road Saturday.
“We came at 10:30 to set up and we really couldn’t leave because there were donations all morning,” she said.
People came with hundreds of dollars in cash, gift cards and other donations. One major chain store, which Ms. Dooley said declined to be identified, donated to the Sweeneys an entire set of kitchen appliances.
A donation of $10 was suggested to take part in the walk, which began at the VFW and took a loop around the point back to the hall. Participants got an escort from the police and fire departments, and Paul Jestings drove some kids around in a “cow train” that came from Louis Escobar’s Highland Dairy Farm.
The event was about more than donations and money, however.
“It was more that we’re all here and we all care for them,” said Ms. Dooley. “This could have happened to any of us.”
Just before the Lap of Love stepped off, Ms. Sweeney took a bullhorn to thank everyone for their donations and support in her family’s time of need.
“Thank you for allowing us to show our children what a loving and wonderful community is all about,” said Ms. Sweeney.
Ms. Sweeney first thanked Portsmouth firefighters and the other towns that responded to the fire.
“The firefighters shared with us a cute story,” she said. “Late that night when they were focusing on making sure all the hot spots were out, they saw a red spot in the back of the house. Firefighters went into the house only to find that it was my son’s fire truck with a rotating red light that was buried under debris.”
The helping hands from neighbors were extended before the fire was even out.
“I watched our friend Peter when he met us on the scene take the shoes off his feet and gave them to my barefoot husband,” Ms. Sweeney said, adding that a neighbor provided water, a coat and “socks to warm my feet,” while another gave her a coat to wear.
When she and her husband left the scene to clear their heads, they bumped into three neighbors who were walking to her parents’ house with food, pajamas for the boys, toothbrushes, dog food and milk.
“We have a neighbor that came to my parents’ steps with his son’s brand new computer still in the box,” Ms. Sweeney said. “We declined his offer and told him we thought we’d be okay. So Ray left with the computer that day. The next day when I arrived at my parents’ house, the computer was sitting on the table. Ray was right; we did need the use of the computer.”
She gave a special thank-you to Denys Eftekhar, owner of Cory Farms Past and Present, for making it possible for her family to move into a comfortable and warm home while they rebuild.
“Thank you to all of our friends and neighbors. Your kind words and gestures will allow us to fill our new home at 2 Summit Road with many special warm new memories,” she said.
It’s easier to deal with losing all your possessions when there are so many friends out there you didn’t even know you had, he said.
“I know 10 percent of these people,” he said, motioning around. “I’ve got complete strangers helping me and it’s blowing my mind.”