‘Beyond anything we could’ve imagined’

About three weeks ago, four USD students found themselves without a place to live and with no personal belongings after the Vermillion house they were renting was severely damaged by fire.

All four students feel their tragic ordeal has only strengthened their bonds with the Vermillion community.

In the three weeks since the fire made their former home uninhabitable, Dani Wertjes, Maja Cromwell, Danyel McFarlane and Alicia Sferrazza said the city of Vermillion and the University of South Dakota have done all they can to help get them back on their feet.

"We just want everyone to know how thankful we are to the whole community," Sferrazza said. "Everyone has been super supportive. It's beyond anything we could've imagined."

"Without all of the support from the community and the university, I don't know where we would be right now," McFarlane said. "We've gotten donations and gift cards. So many of my teachers have asked if I just wanted a hug."

After the fire, the Red Cross put all four students up in a hotel for three days. USD then made sure the girls had a place to stay and put them up in dorms in Redwood Court.

Now the close-knit group of roommates are still only two floors apart.

"It was nice of the university to kept the four of us together," McFarlane said. "They never pressed us and made it clear they would put us wherever made us the most comfortable."

McFarlane said the four have experienced emotional breakdowns, and have turned to each other to help with the process of coping with their losses.

Since the girls moved into their new "homes", support has poured in. Beds were donated along with sheets, pillows, laundry bags and basic living utensils for the USD School of Education.

With all of the support the four girls have received, Wertjes said it feels like she now has 200 moms.

Sferrazza added the way USD has helped shows it really cares about each and every person at the university.

So far, USD and the community has helped to raise $2,000 for the four girls to help them purchases things from clothes to text books.

USD Dean of Students James Parker said the four girls are very appreciative of the help and are working hard to succeed. Parker also added that how the residents of Vermillion have responded shows how much the community cares for each other.

"It's a good experience to show how a community can come together," he said. "We have all worked together to work with them to make this experience as easy as possible."

All four girls agreed the toughest part has been getting back into the swing of things class wise. Three of the four girls lost their textbooks, laptops and notes only a month before finals.

"The one thing I wish is that this hadn't happened so close to finals," Cromwell said.

McFarlane was just getting back to campus when the fire started and still had her backpack on her when she left the building. Some school supplies remained at the house, and were lost. All four students said their professors have worked with them to make sure they are able to get notes and are prepared for the final two weeks of the year.

"My math teacher printed a whole stack of notes for me," Wertjes said. "I am getting back into the swing of things, and I just got a new computer as well."

McFarlane said the first couple of weeks of class after the fire were difficult, but things are starting to return to normal.

"It's been a lot easier to talk about, and everyone would ask about it," she said. "Now I am able to just sit there in class and get my mind off it."

The main thing that has helped all four girls get back on their feet is the attitude they have had since the fire. All four of them have remained positive even though they all suffered major losses.

"Being negative won't bring our stuff back or make the fire go away," Sferrazza said. "It's tough, and we can't get our stuff back, but this is now a new start for us. It's a time for us to create new memories going forward and to rebuild."

"I think they have had a great mental approach," Parker said. "Attitude is always important, and their attitude has allowed them to keep an open mind."

All four girls did learn an important lesson from the fire – the importance of renter's insurance.

Only Cromwell had insurance, but that hasn't stopped recovering from this experience from being a long, nerve-wracking process.

"It's been hard to make the list of everyone and remember it all, but it has helped," she said.

The rest of the girls said they will remember to get renter's insurance next time.

The girls are signed in for a lease for next year now. Wertjes will be moving into a house with a couple other girls and the other three will be living in an apartment.

"Most of the donations have come from people who have been through fires," Sferrazza said. "The community has just shown so much support, and I feel like we are all related now."

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