Early last Sunday morning, residents of Glen Cove’s Orchard neighborhood were stirred from their sleep by the smell of smoke. Overnight, a fire had ripped through a two-family home at 5 Stanco St. The occupants were unharmed, but lost everything in the blaze.
The fire started around midnight in the second-floor apartment, and the ceiling of the first-floor apartment collapsed. Several fire trucks, police officers and Red Cross volunteers responded to the scene, and were there until 4:30 a.m.
Later that morning, a member of the Locust Valley School District created a GoFundMe page to help Damon Garner and his 22-year-old son, Tajah, who lived on the second floor of the home. Garner is a security guard at Locust Valley Intermediate School, and also works for Glen Cove’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The donation goal was set at $50,000, but community members raised over $63,000 in a single day, preventing the page from accepting any further donations.
Garner said the shock of the weekend came in two waves. He wasn’t home at the time of the fire, and couldn’t believe his belongings had been lost. “I didn’t think it was true until I actually got there and saw it,” he recounted.
Later, he was shocked by the flood of donations, which he described as an immeasurable show of love and affection from his friends in Locust Valley and Glen Cove. “These parents trust me with their children every day,” he said, “and for them to go out of their way to help me in this situation is overwhelming.”
Anna Villella, of Locust Valley, is a longtime friend of Garner’s and a self-proclaimed fan. She said she was unsurprised by the rally of neighbors who rushed to help the Garners get back on their feet. “It’s a testament to the person he is,” she said. “He is completely loved.” Villella added that even some students took part in the efforts. On April 8, middle schoolers organized a bake sale at Locust Valley High School to raise money for the family.
“Damon is an important part of the Locust Valley school community. He keeps everyone safe while also making them smile,” said Amy Watson, the assistant principal at Locust Valley Intermediate. “He knows all the students and parents and shows a genuine interest in how they are all doing. We are extremely grateful that Damon and his family are safe.”
Garner, 45, is also a constant presence in Glen Cove’s youth programs. He is a longtime coach and umpire in the Gold Coast Little League, runs the youth basketball league, coaches junior football and works in the summer camps. Darcy Belyea, the city’s parks and recreation director, who has worked closely with Garner for years, said she was humbled that someone so deserving — who asked for nothing — has received such an outpouring of support from his neighbors.
“His heart is as big as his stature,” Belyea said of her colleague, who stands 6 feet 4 and weighs 300 pounds. “He’s a selfless, special man who spreads himself too thin and doesn’t stop until it’s time to go to sleep.” Belyea has organized efforts to collect immediate aid for the Garners and members of the Moeller family, who lived on the home’s first floor, and is accepting additional monetary donations, household items, clothing, furniture and gift cards (see box). This Saturday, McDonalds of Glen Cove will donate 15 percent of its sales to the Garner and Moeller families.
The Moellers were home at the time of the fire. Christine and Charles Moeller gathered their children — Lauren Pedro, 15, Alice, 9, and Charles Allen, 5 — and ran outside, where they watched the flames engulf the top of the house.
Christine said she, too, has been overwhelmed by the support from the community, but was particularly grateful to her upstairs neighbor. “I don’t know how we could cope without Damon,” she said. “He’s been a tremendous support. He lost everything, too, but he’s going out of his way to help us out as well.”
“I was always taught to be courteous and generous and never take people for granted,” Garner said. “Always lend a helping hand — you never know, in a time of need, who will help you.”
As he began to piece his life back together, Garner said he planned to reach out to every person who has helped in the effort. “It’s not going to go unnoticed,” he added.