WESTFIELD, NJ — Kenya Mutyanda was in the kitchen making dinner on March 1 when she heard her panicked 14-year-old son, Munashe, scream “Mom!” from the room where he had gone to check on his two-year-old brother, Isaiah.
The three had just returned to the house they rented on Liberty Avenue from Munashe’s first track practice at Westfield High School. They had noticed a burning electrical odor when they first came home but, after checking all of the outlets, Mutyanda thought the house was fine. Now she ran into a room that was filling with smoke.
“Munashe was on his knees and he had brother in his hands and he was like, ‘here.’” Mutyanda took the baby out of the room, then tried to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher. When it didn’t work, she took the children out of the house and called 911.
Mutyanda realized that if the fire reached the home’s propane tank, the explosion could be huge. She put the boys in the car, then remembered that the keys were still on the couch. She held her breath, closed her eyes ran and back into the house, which was now filled with thick, white smoke, to retrieve the keys from where she’d left them on the couch.
When she’d made it out, Mutyanda drove the car around the corner and waited for firefighters to arrive. When they did, she took this video:
Hours later, the flames were extinguished and the house declared “unlivable.” The Red Cross gave her an emergency debit card that would provide them with funds for three days in a hotel, food and some clothes. (All they had were the pajamas they were wearing.)
Mutyanda still wonders how it might have been worse. “I imagine if he didn’t go and check on his brother, Isaiah’s little lungs would have filled with smoke,” she said. The family was up later than usual that night, as well. “If it was Thursday, we would have been in bed,” she said. For some reason, the smoke alarms had remained silent.
“The last week has been an emotional roller coaster,” Mutyanda told TAP at the hotel where she, Munashe, Isaiah and her 19-year-old daughter Imani (who is home on break from college) are staying until Tuesday, March 12, thanks to an individual who heard their story and was able to help.
Mutyanda, who was raised in Cranford and has lived in Westfield with her family for more than 10 years, doesn’t know where they will go Tuesday night.
Because they were renting, the family’s biggest obstacle now is finding someone willing to rent to a woman on unemployment. Mutyanda, who has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Kean University, was laid off from her job as Unit Director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Union County in July.
Social Services told Mutyanda they couldn’t help her because she was collecting unemployment benefits.
“If you live life the way you’re supposed to, they can’t help you,” she said.
Mutyanda, who has volunteered at shelters with her daughter in the past, is afraid to bring her children to one. “My experience is it’s not something that I want them to be around,” she explained. “That’s just something I can’t see myself doing unless I’ve exhausted every option.”
Meanwhile, she said, “I’m trying to keep some normalcy in the boys’ lives.” Munashe, a ninth-grader, attends a Union County Vocational-Technical School where he is learning about engineering. He plays sports at Westfield High School.
Since March 1, Mutyanda has spent every available moment contacting friends and agencies, wading through the “no” answers from the agencies until she gets to a “yes.” The stress is getting to her.
“I’m having trouble keeping track and recalling things,” said Mutyanda. “I’m like, ‘Come on, Kenya. Get yourself together.’”
As a mother, she knows she has to keep going. “I need to get their lives back in order. I need to be a good example for my kids and show them that though times can happen and you’ve got to keep your head together,” she said.
In addition to a place to live, the family needs clothing and everyday items. “The only things we were able to save were items in the storage shed and the basement,” said Mutyanda. She’s thankful that the basement was where she kept the family’s memory boxes, photos and treasures like their homemade Christmas ornaments. Their fireproof safe also kept their important documents intact.
Otherwise, she said, “From pots to socks, everything is gone.”
When Mutyanda asked Evangel Church in Scotch Plains for help, the congregation gave her groceries and gift cards, as well as a sense that someone cared.
The Westfield High School Marching Band has given the family some clothes and gift cards, as have parents from Girl Scout Troop 824. Imani had been active in both before graduating WHS last year.
The family needs the following clothes:
For Isaiah, size 2T boys’ clothes, size 8 shoes and size 5 diapers. For Munashe, size 16 pants, size 9 shoes and jr XL/mens’ small tops. For Imani, size 2 pants, size 7 shoes and small tops. Kenya needs business attire appropriate for job interviews in size 12, size 8 shoes and large tops.
All of them need basics. “We could really use socks,” said Mutyanda. Isaiah loves Thomas the Tank Engine, she told TAP.
Family friend Alena Minatee is collecting items for the family. To donate, call her at 908-917-4030.*
*Editor's note, 3/12/13--Due to an overwhelming response from our readers, Minatee has set up this email address where you can contact her about helping the Mutyanda family: Alena4Mutyandas@hotmail.com.
Allstate Agent Ron Bansky has offered his office at 519 South Avenue in Westfield as a drop spot for Westfield-area residents to bring smaller items such as clothing, toys and gift cards. Click here to see his website and hours of operation.
The family has found a safe place to stay unitl Saturday, March 16. TAP will continue to follow this story.
For additional up-to-the-minute information about this story and to share ideas about how to help the Mutyanda family, "like" The Alternative Press of Westfield on Facebook.