VERNON — Christmas came early this year for a local 9-year old boy and his family as the owner of the Love It Twice resale and consignment shop held a surprise party in his honor at the Vernon Fire Department.
"I've been working very closely with this particular family and the school counselor at the Academy School, so we were just talking about Austin and he remembered when firefighters came into his school and taught him about fire safety," said Love It Twice owner and operator, Leigh-Ann Cwikowski. "We put our heads together and thought it would be fun to invite him and his family to the fire station to give the kids some closure just in case they had some questions about what happened and to see us all out of our fire gear and to have a good time."
Austin Lee-Pinette, 9, of Brattleboro, grabbed his 3-year-old brother, Adam, from his bed when he realized that his apartment complex was on fire. Lee-Pinette was one of the 45 individuals who evacuated the Valgar Street apartment complex when it went up in flames after an act of arson on Saturday Nov. 7, 2015. Lee-Pinette, his siblings Rose (5) and Adam (3) and his mother, Kristy Schoolcraft were among the 11 families that were displaced after the fire. They lost nearly all of their possessions due to the fire damage and currently reside in a local hotel.
"It's not everyday that we are amongst heroes, but today we do have a hero among us," said Assistant Chief of the Vernon Fire Department, Michael Pratt. "That being said, we know, Austin, that you're the type of guy we like to have around."
The Vernon Fire Department presented Lee-Pinette with a certificate that recognized him as an honorary member in good standing that was signed by Vernon Fire Chief, Todd Capen. Lee-Pinette and his siblings were given several Christmas presents provided by Love It Twice and community members. The children smiled as they unwrapped the gifts and enjoyed pizza, cake and a tour of the fire department.
"I'm proud of Austin, especially for that morning (of the fire)," said Schoolcraft. "It's been hard, but we're getting through it." Schoolcraft paused and looked at her children's faces as they unwrapped each gift with utter excitement. "They're happy and I'm happy to see them getting past the disaster that happened." Schoolcraft thanked all who responded to the fire along with Cwikowski, the Vernon Fire Department for hosting the party and her friend, Kate Booker, who she said has been especially supportive through this trying time.
Lee-Pinette and his siblings and friends sat in the fire trucks while the lights flashed and firefighters explained how the vehicles operate. Three of the Vernon firefighters raced against each other to see who could put on their fire gear the fastest. The children laughed and jumped up and down with anticipation of the race results. The fighters jumped into all of their protective gear and Lieutenant Tiffany Capen threw her hands up in the air victoriously when she completed the race first. The children cheered and then gathered for a photo with the firefighters.
After the tour of the department, Lee-Pinette cut into the cake that had his name written across it and served a piece to everyone at the party before he dove into the sugary treat himself. "I'm happy to be here, this is my first time here," said Lee-Pinette with an enormous grin.
"If you need anything, we want to hear about it," said Cwikowski to Schoolcraft."We're happy to do whatever it takes to get you guys back on your feet." In addition to the Christmas presents, Cwikowski and community partners gave Schoolcraft and her family a box of snacks, a wash bag and a laundry basket and detergent.