GoFundMe campaigns set up for two sets of tenants displaced by the Sept. 27 house fire in the 1300 block of 35th Avenue continue to garner contributions. (Roger Knox - Morning Star)

Teen tenants of Vernon house fire given gift of music

RJ and J.R. Liebelt don’t feel they’re starting from scratch after losing their worldly possessions

Fire Prevention Week is a reminder to Canadians that house fires can affect the lives of anyone, without warning. Conversely, a Vernon house fire in late September served as a reminder of the support the community offers to those whose homes meet that tragic fate.

When Vernon teen brothers RJ and J.R Liebelt saw their worldly possessions go up in flames in the Sept. 27 house fire on East Hill, they had no idea what kind of community outreach would come to their aid — and what’s taken place in the weeks after the event has left them amazed.

“The generosity of this town is crazy,” said J.R., 17. “The support we’ve been receiving has been immense.”

“It doesn’t feel like I’m starting from square one right now which is the greatest thing. I’ve lost everything but it still feels like I have so much,” 19-year-old RJ said.

Hours after the fire, members of the community were rounding up items to support the two brothers as well as the family living upstairs — Emma and her two children. In particular, the community ensured that all were kept well-clothed.

“I’ve got like 34 outfits already, and honestly I feel like I have more clothes than I had before,” J.R says with a laugh.

A GoFundMe page was started for Emma, who then decided to direct 20 per cent of the donations to her former downstairs neighbours. That page has since reached $8,915 towards its $10,000 goal.

Music is a common passion between the two boys. J.R plays the bass as one of his favourite hobbies, while RJ has plans to go to Capilano University for a major in musical theatre and a minor in jazz. Both J.R’s bass and RJ’s saxophone were lost in the fire, but that’s proven to be another setback the community is willing to make up for.

READ MORE: Firefighters battle blaze in Vernon home

“I’ve had some people reach out actually and say that they have friends who have kids or people they know who have a saxophone that they don’t play often so they’re willing to give me one if I need it, which is crazy,” RJ said. It will be impossible to find a true replacement for the saxophone, as he’d received it due to a scholarship from the Vernon Jazz Club after he worked his way up to being of the best performers in his grade.

RJ hasn’t taken up an offer of a saxophone yet due to lacking space for personal items (B.C. Emergency Social Services and Canadian Red Cross put them up in a hotel for a week and they are currently staying with friends), but thanks to a donation of a keyboard, the brothers are able to play music again.

“Both me and RJ really wanted to get into piano playing — RJ a lot. I remember he was talking about getting a keyboard, or lessons — all that type of stuff. So it was so nice,” J.R said.

For RJ, who has ambitions to make a career out of music and musical theatre, the whirlwind of events that have transpired over the last few weeks will stay with him, and will have an influence on the music he goes on to write.

“I definitely think this whole situation will affect my inspiration, my music and whatever I write in the future, be it about hope or anguish or loss or whatever.

“From experiencing the whole scene, the house going up in flames, knowing I’m losing everything — it’s definitely quite the experience for any kind of artist. And then just having that help after the fact, it makes me feel like I have to write, I can’t afford not to.”

READ MORE: Fire Prevention Week sparks safety reminder for Vernon residents

READ MORE: Man breaks 2 B.C. records at annual pumpkin weigh off


Brendan Shykora
Reporter, Vernon Morning Star
Email me at Brendan.Shykora@vernonmorningstar.com
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