Community rallies around family after house fire
By Lindsay Myers
On the evening of July 18, dozens of volunteers gathered in the yard of Joe Atkins’ home in the 4900 block of 42nd Avenue. Masked and sweating, they worked systematically to dry off and load up what was left of Atkins’ possessions into a U-Haul parked in the driveway. Atkins’ home had caught fire earlier that afternoon. Items from the basement were wet but salvageable; almost everything else was gone.
Atkins, a band leader both literally and metaphorically, directed the army of volunteers and cracked jokes at firefighters who came by afterward to see the charred remains of the home. “You’re late!” he yelled across the yard.
“He just orchestrates things,” said Rebecca Gitter, Atkins’ longtime friend, who showed up to help. “That’s just his personality. I think that’s why he’s so resilient.”
Atkins’ wife and band partner, Dana, died of cancer in November 2019. While Joe was navigating her death with their two teenage children, the novel coronavirus hit the world and changed their day-to-day lives again. The night before the fire, they put down the family dog.
“How is freaking out going to help?” said Atkins. “The only reason I was able to look composed [that day] is because it wasn’t all my problem. It was my house, but everyone was there helping me. You couldn’t keep people away.”
Friends, neighbors and people who simply saw the smoke above the tree canopy all gathered to watch the house burn. When the fire department had finished their work, most of the onlookers stayed to help. Those who couldn’t lift things ran home to get tents and coolers. People dropped off water and Gatorade by the cases. An employee of the Anacostia Watershed Society brought over a bunch of hip waders so volunteers could wade through the basement and rescue Atkins’s many instruments, including an upright piano. Others clipped wet documents and sheet music to makeshift clotheslines they strung in the yard. The next day, the PG Pool swim team showed up to lend muscle and a water mister that kept everyone cool.
“In a weird way,” said Atkins, “it seems like people needed this as a chance to, like, reach out and actually do something about something. To be united over a thing you can’t argue about.”
Gitter and her husband, Jim Groves, who has also known Atkins for years, set up a GoFundMe page to help Atkins cover any immediate expenses. They set the initial fundraising goal at $7,500, which was met within four hours.
“I am blown away by the amount of money people have donated,” said Groves. “And not just people who know Joe, [but] people who know friends of Joe or know of Joe. … The community just steps up.”
The day before the fire Atkins received some good news from the county: His permit to rebuild the wraparound porch on his home had just been approved. Twenty-four hours later Atkins realized he was going to need many more permits.
When designing his new home, Atkins says his main goal is to make sure the house reflects the spirit of friendship he and his wife always tried to extend to the community.
“[So] anyone would feel comfortable … coming in to say hi. Walk in, sit down and immediately feel like you’re at home, part of the family. Like you have the run of the place,” he said. “We have always carried it that way, so if we can do that, and make it feel like it’s always been there, then we’ve been successful.”