Culture

Miracle in the Pandemic Year

When tragedy struck a Windsor family, the community rallied to make them whole again
Author: Matt St. Amand
Photographer: Caster Custom Homes
3 weeks ago
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It was a no-brainer.

            When Dan Caster, president of Caster Custom Homes, received an email from Barry Zekelman in September requesting help for a family of six kids who had just lost both their parents, Dan had only one response: “What can I do?”

            Adam and Carmen Allen tragically passed away on September 6, 2020, shocking the New Life Fellowship church community to its core. The Allens left six children, aged four to 17.

            “Carmen’s mother had been active in our music ministry,” says Bishop Paul Riley, the church’s leader. “The older children went to Sunday school here.”

            As the faith community dealt with its grief, Bishop Paul pondered, “What can we do for these kids?”

            Having developed contacts within the business community over the years and working with youth groups in downtown Windsor, Bishop Paul put out a call to business leaders asking for help.

            Even before Barry Zekelman contacted him, Dan had heard about the Allen children from friends while at dinner. The consensus among the group was that it would probably be impossible for the six siblings to remain together through the adoption process.

            As it turned out, the impossible happened: Chantell and Terrence Hurst announced they would adopt all six children.

            “The Lord just laid something on my heart,” Chantell told CTV in December. “When they were at their house, I was doing their hair and when I realized they weren’t being placed anywhere, the Lord put it on my heart and then I called my husband and he just said, ‘If that’s what you want.’”

            Chantell, a hairdresser, had known the Allen family for just over two years. Chantell is particularly skilled with braiding, and she knew the children from going to their home and doing their hair.

            Although the most important, and most miraculous, aspect of the situation had been solved, there was a litany of other issues to tackle.

            “The timing was a miracle,” Bishop Paul explains. “The Hursts’ residence, however, wasn’t big enough for eight people. Their vehicle couldn’t even hold five people. But they stepped out on faith, thinking, ‘We don’t know how, but we’re going to do this.’”

            As each need arose, members of the community responded.

            To help with transportation, for example, a great deal on Chrysler Pacifica was offered to the family. But the most pressing challenge was, where would the family live?

            “The children’s great grandfather donated his house,” Dan Caster explains. The children’s great-grandfather was not a wealthy landowner who bequeathed one of his many properties to the family; instead, Phil Alexander, a 78-year-old former professor at the University of Windsor, gave his own home.

            “He had lived there for forty years or more,” says Bishop Paul. “Until recently, he had no intention of leaving. But Mr. Alexander said, ‘If it helps my grandkids, I want to keep this in the family.’ He moved out of the house within a week.”

            The email circulating through the business community listed Bishop Paul as the contact person for anyone willing to help.

            “When Dan called me,” Bishop Paul remembers. “He said, ‘Let’s talk.’ At that point, I hadn’t even seen the house. Neither had Dan. He said, ‘I’ll repaint the place and freshen it up for the family.’”

            The day Bishop Paul and Dan went to see the house, they realized it was going to need more than some paint to make it a suitable residence for eight people.

            “It went from ‘I’m going to paint,’” Bishop Paul recalls, “to a complete refurbishment. A three-week job turned into a three-month job.”

            While the new family stayed in Airbnbs around Windsor, Dan and his team of subcontractors got to work.

            “My kitchen guy came in,” Dan says, “and he donated a brand-new kitchen, appliances and everything. My electrical guy came in and rewired the house. No matter who I asked, all they said was, ‘What can I do?’”

            Benji Mastronardi of Double Diamond Farms contacted Dan and asked, “What do you need me to do?” Dan told him the house needed furniture. Benji furnished the entire house.

            One after another, Dan’s subcontractors came and donated materials and their services.

            “Nobody thought twice about it,” Dan explains. “It’s for kids. Everybody stepped up.”

            Dan had particularly personal reasons for being so moved by the story.

            “Five years ago, my daughter almost died in my arms,” he says. “It changed everything, my whole outlook on life. You have to take care of kids.”

            All of this occurred while Caster Custom Homes was delivering 70 townhouses in 18 months—during a global pandemic. No matter the obstacles, people found ways to contribute.

            Work on the house and support for the family came from all corners of the community.

            “When we put this story out, the response blew my mind,” Bishop Paul recalls. “I was receiving envelopes at the church. People were making so much food for the family, their grandmother had to say, ‘Hang on, we’re running out of room.’ Everyone wanted to help.”

            Windsor philanthropist Alan Quesnel contacted Dan, saying he wanted to make a donation on behalf of the Alan Quesnel Family Foundation. He quoted a sizable sum.

            “Next day, Al called me,” Dan remembers. “He said, ‘Dan, I talked to God last night and he wants me to double the donation. Can you give me the church’s address?’”

            The house donated by Mr. Alexander became the focal point. The business community refurbished and furnished the entire residence.

            “Every pot, pan, and dish,” Dan continues. “Bed linen. We replaced outside doors. I filled six roll-off bins cleaning the house out. As soon as people heard the story, they were at the house doing something.”

            For all the outpouring of community support, there has been an equal measure of intrusion by the media. The story of Chantell and Terrence adopting six children is an uplifting story in a year that many people would prefer to forget. It must be remembered, however, that the Hursts are just ordinary people living their lives. They never sought, nor expected, such attention. When they saw an instance of great need, they stepped up and helped.

            When contacted for this story, Chantell and Terrence were gracious, but they were uncomfortable with the media attention. In the past six months, their family has experienced more personal upheaval than most of us will know in a lifetime.

            “We are very grateful to the community,” Chantell says. “People are saying we’re the heroes. The kids are the heroes.”

            Anyone interested in reaching out is encouraged to do so through Bishop Paul at New Life Fellowship church (www.newlifefellowshipchurchonline.org), located at 810 Mercer Street in Windsor, 519-419-5365.