Family thankful to be in new home after fire

THE SCHLEBEN family moved into their new home, Oct. 26. While it took four months to complete, it could have been longer if it hadn’t been for family and friends. They will be there for Thanksgiving this week and Christmas. Pictured are, from left, Naomi, Austin, Kari, and dad J.R. with his arm around Leena. (Photo by Peter Jakey)

by Peter Jakey–Managing Editor

A Hawks family of five is grateful for the community support they’ve received since a May fire gutted their home and took everything that was near and dear to them, including the family dog. 

No lives were lost, or even threatened. Elmer Jr. and Kari Schleben and their three children were working or at school when it started. Minus many pieces of their lives, they moved on to rebuild a one-story house on the same footprint.
From a practical standpoint, it’s just in time for winter, but it’s also the time of year to be thankful.  The Schlebens certainly are.

They finally moved in to the rebuilt home Oct. 26, and are grateful for all of the support that started with an initial wave from concerned family and community members, but continued throughout the summer and fall, until the task was complete and they are all living together again under the same roof.

Following the fire, downstate neighbors from Livonia offered up the use of their northern trailer getaway across the road. When they came up, the Schlebens had to move to a camper on their property. The couple’s oldest daughter, Naomi, 15, stayed at her grandmother’s house in Rogers City most of the summer.

“There just wasn’t enough room for everybody in the camper,” said Kari. 

“It was not easy,” J.R. added. But, it was easier than renting a home in Rogers City and driving 15 miles back-and-forth.

J.R., whose area of work expertise is construction, moved forward with the plans to rebuild and footings were poured July 1. 

The extra work would come at the end of a regular work shift, but he got lots of help. 

Friends and family would show up following their various work schedules, and sometimes in 100 degree Fahrenheit heat, and go until 11:30 at night. “It was nonstop all summer,” he said. “I can’t personally thank everyone, because I would probably leave someone out.” J.R. believes he could have made a phone call and easily got a crew of 20 to 30 out if needed. Sometimes, he wouldn’t even ask. People driving by would stop and check to see how construction was progressing and provide assistance if needed by cleaning the yard or pushing a broom.

“It has been unbelievable,” said J.R. “The people that I know, that know us, that were willing to do anything possible to make sure that this was done. I don’t know what else to say. We had people working here on the Fourth of July. They should have been at the beach.”

Kari said the help was constant. For example, family and friends would conduct garage sales and invite Kari over to get what she needed. Some paid for new school clothes and supplies for the new school year.

J.R. has tried to reciprocate by purchasing furniture, appliances and supplies locally. “We did as much as we could, to help support the community,” said J.R. “Because the community came together for us, it was the least we could do.” He also put a fellow to work for nearly a week when jobs got canceled and times were tough.

The new house has more rooms and more room even though the square footage is about the same. It is just laid out differently. 

One of the highlights is the hub of the home. The living room/kitchen/dining area, all combine for one large family area. There’s also a large attached garage, but the one part of the interior that stands out more than any other is the tongue-and-groove pine wood that covers nearly everything. 

It is a beautiful new home that J.R. is still not ready to give the “better” label. “I loved our old house, I put a lot of work into that,” said J.R. Along with his brother Mike Schleben, who put in many hours on the new house, they put two winters into making improvements on the old one.

“It’s better because it meets all the codes, but was I happy with the old house, absolutely,” he said. 

So, it’s been an ordeal that’s been made easier by the humanity of a caring community. 

“I’m thankful to be in the house,” said Kari. “We have little stuff left to do, but it is just little stuff. The main house is up and we’re not sitting in the snow somewhere, and that the whole family is back together again.”

Austin also was thankful to not be living in the camper, because it was a little confined.

Naomi and Leena, who shared rooms in the old house, are very happy to have their own rooms. 

“I’m thankful nobody got hurt in the fire,” said J.R., “And during the rebuilding process, nobody was injured. Everything went smooth. We’re back in here.”

And while home is where the heart is, it’s also the place where most people feel the safest, with no worries or concerns. It’s where the Schlebens are today, because of so many caring people.