“I have to be strong for my kids. For them, I have to make everything seem like it's OK. If I'm calm, they will be calm."
DESTIN — A family already struggling with their little girl’s cancer diagnosis was burned out of their rental home Friday night.
Jeniffer and Chris Wheeler were in their Benning Drive home about 10:30 p.m. when the fire broke out in the laundry room.
“It took over so fast that within moments it took over the entire dining room,” Jeniffer said. “I yelled at the kids to go to the neighbor’s house and call 911.”
The five of them escaped, along with their pregnant dog, but they couldn’t find their pig, Waddles.
Firefighters from the Destin Fire Control District and Okaloosa Island put out the fire and found the unconscious pig, who was revived by Okaloosa County EMS but has not fully recovered.
“He’s a little mentally altered,” Jeniffer said. “It takes him a second to realize who we are.”
Now, the family is living in the one-bedroom trailer they use as an office on their farm in Freeport and struggling to get their children to schools in Okaloosa County. They did not have renters insurance and nearly everything in the house was destroyed either by smoke or fire.
Their children, 16-year-old Chrisjen, 12-year-old Kriseya and 6-year-old Cloud, attend schools in Fort Walton Beach and Destin, which is an hour’s drive from the farm.
Kriseya was diagnosed in January 2015 with a large benign brain tumor, for which she has undergone several operations and 16 months of chemotherapy. This summer, doctors told her family that the tumor was now shedding cancerous cells into her spinal column.
There is no known treatment.
In the wake of the fire, which has been ruled accidental, Jeniffer said their first priority is finding a place closer to their children’s schools to keep their lives as normal as possible.
But as of Monday evening, she wasn’t sure what they were going to do next.
They are still trying to salvage items from the house, and generous friends have offered them clothing and furniture. But they have nowhere to put donations, she said. For now, they are sharing a single bed.
And between the fire and the stress of her daughter's illness, she said all that keeps her going is her children.
“It’s just a day-by-day thing,” Jeniffer said. “I have to be strong for my kids.
"For them, I have to make everything seem like it’s OK. If I'm calm, they will be calm."