By Gerhard Schneibel

Although a fire at the Arlington Apartments burned the occupants of 24 units out of their homes Dec. 7, affected families said they’ll still enjoy the holidays, thanks to the good will of their neighbors and Woodland Charter Elementary School.

It took more than 70 firefighters from 18 units six hours to put out the fire, which destroyed half a building. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, a spokesman for the Sandy Springs Fire Department said.

Damien Givens, wife Shantrice, daughter Tyla and son Darius lost their home in the fire but were still looking forward to a full Christmas dinner and all the presents that go with the holiday.

“The school has been so helpful. They just keep blessing us over and over again. The love has just been so great,” Damien said.

More than a dozen students from Woodland Charter Elementary School lived in the apartments, and Principal Ruth Baskerville said so many donations and gifts were made that the school’s conference room was filled “floor to ceiling” and the school eventually had to turn them away. Civic and religious groups, businesses, parents, school staff, and neighbors brought items including clothing, beds, furniture, dishes, linens, Christmas trees, dry and canned goods, gift cards, and money for food and gas.

Tyla, 6, said she asked for a Bratz doll and a Nintendo DS video game system, and she’s happy in her new apartment. Her brother, Darius, is 9 and in the fourth grade at Woodland. Damien said the management of the Arlington Apartments has done its part to accommodate them.

Shantrice felt that during the ordeal, it was important for her daughter to have a consistently supportive environment at school. “Things here didn’t change even though their homes were destroyed,” Shantrice said. “They still knew things would be fine at school.”

Tyla’s kindergarten class donated the money designated for their Christmas party. “They said, ‘If they can’t have Christmas, we don’t want to either.’ A 16-year-old wouldn’t have been that generous,” Shantrice said.

Baskerville said: “We tried to take care of everybody, whether you go here or not. Times are hard all over, and people go from pay to pay like everybody else. And for people to reach deep in their pockets to help in such a selfless manner is remarkable, but it’s also what the season is.”

School counselor Jolana Roberts and social worker Tanya Young coordinated the giving. “It was like a family,” Roberts said. “You just pitch in and do it.”

“Nobody likes to be, literally or figuratively, left out in the cold, and none of our families have felt that,” Baskerville said. “There’s nothing more important to a parent than giving a gift to their children. They don’t mind about themselves.”