It was Christmas Eve, and Jeff and Kristen Kidder were having dinner with their next-door neighbors, just as they had for the past several years. Their son, Jackson, was in town for the holidays. They ate Swedish meatballs and played some games. It was an especially poignant time for the family because Jeff had recently been diagnosed with Mantle cell lymphoma and was undergoing treatments at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
“It was a really nice evening,” said Kristen.
When they left neighbors Dave and Liz Colwell’s home about 10 p.m., however, the Kidders smelled smoke and saw thick, black clouds coming from the direction of their house. Kristen’s first thought: “We don’t have a chimney.”
The house was rapidly engulfed by flames. Inside, the Christmas tree was still aglow with lights. Kristen thought about opening the back door to try to rescue their cat, Scar, but it was too late.
Instead, they watched as firefighters tried to tamp down the flames. The firefighters even tried to save the Christmas presents by passing them out through a window, but most were damaged by fire, smoke or water.
The Kidders lost everything on Christmas Eve — everything except the things that mattered most.
They later learned that they had likely left a candle burning on a table surrounded by greens when they went to visit the Colwells. They now live on their neighbor’s third floor while their home is gutted and rebuilt. Soon, the family will go stay in Rochester so that Jeff can start a stem cell transplant that could lengthen his prognosis from 18-24 months to 7-10 years. His cancer is currently in remission.
The Kidders were drawn to the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul in 1991, intent on finding a multidwelling house where they could create a Christian community built on helping their socially and economically diverse neighborhood.
“In 1991, Frogtown was the worst neighborhood in the city,” said Kristen. “It’s no longer the worst, but there are challenges. We discerned a call into this neighborhood.”
The Kidders like to joke that they “met in treatment,” but they were actually both working for an agency that helped kids with emotional problems. They knew there were lots of kids in Frogtown of different backgrounds and languages. They thought they could be helpful and be good role models.
Over the years, the Kidders have become integral members of that community. Jeff works as music director for Messiah Episcopal Church, and he and his son occasionally play music in local venues. He’s also on the advisory board at Frogtown radio, WFNU. Kristen is on the board of the five-acre Frogtown Farm, which grows fresh organic food for its neighbors. She recently had to step back from a plan to start a nonprofit coffeehouse based on community-building, where anyone could get a cheap cup of coffee and some free company. Any proceeds would go to two local charities.
For 25 years, the Kidders gave to their community. Now, that community is giving back.
Sitting in the dining room where her family spent Christmas Eve, Kristen points her finger to houses all around theirs and mentions all the neighbors who have reached out to help. Many have offered accommodations. After Jeff’s diagnosis, friends put up a GoFundMe site (gofundme.com/jeff-kristens-support-fund) with a goal of $12,000 to help them with expenses. After the fire, friends raised the goal to $30,000, and by Friday, more than $27,000 had been pledged.
“Oh my gosh, people have been so generous,” said Jeff. “It started when my illness was diagnosed and increased after the fire.”
“There have been amazing amounts of love and support,” said Kristen. “For us, it’s been sort of validating and gratifying. We have invested our lives in the community and now it’s the community that is taking care of us.”
The loss of their home is still traumatic, and Jeff’s upcoming transplant will be difficult, but they’ve relied on their friends and their beliefs to get by. A couple of Jeff’s guitars were saved, but he thinks he’s lost several more starter guitars he’d been collecting to teach neighborhood kids how to play.
“It’s definitely a surreal experience,” Jeff said. “I walk back in the house and things don’t make sense. We’ve been aware of the volatility of life for some time, so we’re going to live it day by day and trust that God is with us.”
“Our faith has been a big factor,” said Kristen. “As I stood in the alley and watched the house burn, I said to somebody, ‘God is still good, it will be O.K.’ There’s a good chance I will be a widow some day, and that wasn’t in my plan. I was paying attention to the interrupters in life where God was trying to get in. This is a huge interruption. Perhaps it’s because it’s taking us to the place where our attention was meant to go.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin