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From San Jose flood to Paradise fire, victims of one open home to survivors of another

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SAN JOSE — Brendan and Cat Lavelle know what it means to go through a natural disaster, to feel uprooted and unmoored.
It’s been nearly two years since San Jose’s Coyote Creek burst its banks and turned their downstairs family room into five feet of muck. And it came at the worst possible time, just days after Brendan’s mother, Helene, had been diagnosed with leukemia and would have only weeks to live.
For the Lavelles — he’s teaching history at Archbishop Mitty High School and she’s staying home with their three small children — the two traumas are forever entwined.
But their painful ordeal inspired them to make a bold offer to complete strangers: From one victim of a natural disaster to another, the Lavelles invited refugees of last year’s devastating Camp Fire — Ashley and Kevin Burns and their 11-year-old daughter, Kaylee — to live rent free in their newly renovated space.
Their plight “hit home for us,” Cat Lavelle said. At a time when the Lavelles’ extended family was staging around-the-clock hospital vigils, friends came through when they needed them most. For the Burns, whose closest family members had lost their homes in the most destructive fire in California history, the Lavelles became their lifeline.
“It’s just been a godsend that the Lavelles let us stay here,” said Kevin Burns, 33, whose family had been living with his wife’s parents in Paradise while they were saving for their own place.
The Camp Fire displaced more than 25,000 residents in Butte County, destroying nearly 14,000 homes and killing 86 people.
How the two families found each other seems fateful, and the quiet connection they have forged has grown with each passing week.
SAN JOSE, CA – JANUARY 23: Kaylee Burns, 11, center, plays with Brendan Lovelle, 1, with the help of her father Kevin Burns, right, at the Lavelle’s home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
It started during “story time” at the Joyce Ellington branch library.
Since the day after the fire, the Burns family had been sleeping on the living room floor of a relative’s house in San Jose. They strung up a piece of fabric for privacy and reminded Kaylee to whisper every time she talked to her friends on the phone. They enrolled their fifth-grade daughter at a local school, and she was at the library doing homework in early December when she came home with a story.
A little boy — 1-year-old Brendan Lavelle — had escaped from the story-time circle and was playing a game of poke-and-dash with her when Cat Lavelle came over to wrangle him.
“I told her we were from the fire,” Kaylee said in a recent interview, and explained how she had been stuck for hours in gridlock traffic in the back seat of a classmate’s car, with fire and explosions all around her.
“I was just kind of taken aback,” Cat Lavelle said. “Here’s this little girl, a real live person from Paradise.”
SAN JOSE, CA – JANUARY 23: Cat Lavelle talks with family and friends inside their home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
For Cat, who had worked in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps before she was married, it was a moment she had hoped would present itself ever since the Wine Country fires hit eight months after the San Jose flood. She had felt compelled to offer her newly refinished basement to fire victims back then, but had no takers — until the Burns family. With a hint from Kaylee, Cat found their profile on an adopt-a-family website.
Cat drafted her message.
“Hi Ashley. My name is Cat,” she began. “You’re welcome to come check out our home and live rent free for a while. … We have two cats and three young kids. I’m sure you’re overwhelmed. Hope my message doesn’t creep you out.”
Because the Burns had been living with Ashley’s parents at the time of the fire, saving money for their own place, they had neither homeowners nor renters insurance. Leaving the Chico area so soon after the fire, they missed many of the benefits that charitable organizations had to offer. The Burns set up a gofundme page.
SAN JOSE, CA – JANUARY 23: Ashley Burns sits with her daughter Kaylee, 11, in the Lavelle’s home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
“It wasn’t creepy that you wrote me,” Ashley wrote back. “I was actually really surprised and glad that you did.”
The Lavelles know how lucky they are. They lost some cherished family antiques and photos and everything they kept in their basement storage room, but their upstairs kitchen and living areas were untouched.
The Feb. 21, 2017, flooding of Coyote Creek, just three blocks from the Lavelles’ 19th Street home, caused $100 million damage and forced 14,000 people to flee, some by boat, leaving 500 families displaced for at least a month. Brendan had been at his mother’s side at Stanford Hospital when Cat, who was five months pregnant, beckoned him home. She was loading up the two children and water was rising.
With his family safely settled at his parents’ house, Brendan got home to see water gushing through the basement walls.
“It was a gut check,” Brendan said. “Natural disaster and disease had hit my family.”
He didn’t want to ask anyone for help, but Brendan’s father, Tim, reached out to old friends — Mike Endris and Clyde LeBaron — who suited up over the next several days to haul out the muddy remains.
Restoring the basement would take months, but the Lavelles were able to return to their home in days.
SAN JOSE, CA – JANUARY 23: Kevin Bruns, left, sits with his daughter Kaylee, 11, and wife Ashley, right, at the Lavelle’s home in San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. In the background is Cat Lavelle, center left, holding her son Brendan, 1, next to her husband Brendan and daughter Evelyn, 3. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
Just after Christmas, the Burns moved into the Lavelles’ finished basement with its own entry, living room, bathroom, bedroom and laundry. For the first time in nearly two months, they had a real bed to sleep in.
Kevin had been a handyman working construction jobs in Paradise and quickly found a job with a cabinetmaker in San Jose. Ashley stayed home to help Kaylee, who was having nightmares, adjust to her new surroundings.
Little by little, a friendship has developed. It was tentative at first. Each respects the other’s space. Neither wants to impose. But they share the refrigerator and kitchen table, and Kaylee plays with the children. Ashley bought Cat a gift card for her birthday.
“She goes out of her way to make sure we feel like we’re at home and welcome here,” Ashley said of Cat. “She just has a good heart.”
Mike Endris, who had helped clean out the Lavelles’ flood-ravaged basement and bought Kaylee a new bike,  said that Brendan’s mother, who died one month after the flood, would surely be pleased with the generosity of her son and daughter-in-law.
“I think she’d be the proudest mother ever,” Endris said.
The invitation to stay is open-ended, but the Burns are hoping to get Kaylee through the end of the school year before finding an affordable place to live, either in San Jose or closer to Paradise.
Until then, the Lavelles are happy to help. And the Burns are grateful.
“It seems,” Ashley said, “like it was meant to be.”

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