+
upworthy
More

They fled their home with just their pets and some clothes. Then strangers stepped in.

Driving back to her apartment in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last Monday afternoon, Rachel Gilliam weaved her way through smoke so thick she couldn't make out the mountains south of town.

Wildfires burn outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images.

"Everything had this brown and yellow haze to it, like there was a sepia filter over the world," Gilliam says.


When she arrived home, she called local police and emergency services, who told her that no evacuations were planned. Gilliam's wife, Jess, who had just finished her shift at the distillery where they both work, wasn't willing to wait for an update:

"We need to go," Jess said.

Gilliam grabbed the couple's dog, their two cats, some clothes, and a bag containing their birth certificates and marriage license and fled north to Jess' parents in Knoxville, where they watched the next part of the story unfold on television and through panicked calls and text messages from friends.

Gilliam's apartment complex, after the fires. Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

Wildfires blew into town, killing at least 14, injuring dozens, and destroying hundreds of homes, including the apartment complex where the couple had just moved two months prior.

"It was like a bad dream. It was completely heart-wrenching," Gilliam says.

Just a few miles away in Knoxville, Lacy Mellon and her husband Jonathan were following the same news reports with growing alarm.

A Tennessee native and real estate agent, Mellon regularly rents out two spare bedrooms in her home, and a bungalow listed on Airbnb as, "good for couples, solo adventurers, business travelers, families (w/ kids), big groups, & furry friends (pets)!"

With no guests on the horizon, she saw a better use for the empty space.

"This is my home and these are my people," Mellon says. Hoping to provide some relief to residents displaced by the fires, she sought out a friend who works at Sugarlands Distillery, the same Gatlinburg distillery that employs Rachel Gilliam and her wife.

"I immediately texted her and asked if she knew anyone directly needing housing and told her about our open home," Mellon explains. The friend referred her to Gilliam, who moved into Mellon's bungalow with her pets soon after.

Mellon's bungalow. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I have no words to describe how amazing it felt to have a safe place to live and for the animals to be at no charge," Gilliam says.

In the wake of the Gatlinburg fires, Airbnb has made it easier for its Tennessee hosts to offer their properties to evacuees free of charge.

According to a statement from the company's head of global disaster relief, the Disaster Response Tool will be available to hosts in the Knoxville and Gatlinburg areas through Dec. 13. Airbnb activated the function after Hurricane Matthew slammed the southeastern United States in October.

A review of the site on Monday morning showed dozens of listings available to evacuees in Knoxville, and several more in the surrounding areas.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs." — Lacy Mellon

Amanda Lane, a nursing student at University of Tennessee, saw donating her space as an alternative to giving money or purchasing other needed items for evacuees, which she can't afford.

"I personally feel like I've lost part of my 'home,' but I can't imagine actually losing my house as well," Lane, who grew up camping and hiking near Gatlinburg, says. "I am devastated watching the news, seeing all of the damage, and I really just wanted to be able to help out in anyway that I can."

Others, like Liz Candlish, who operates the Glenwood Inn in Knoxville with her husband J.R., praised the company for making it easy to assist with relief efforts. "I really feel for all the people who lost everything in the fires and since we have the space, would love to offer it to help out," she explains. "We can't imagine what it would be like to have our house burn down, especially right before Christmas."

This is just one of many ways locals are coming together to provide relief to evacuees from the fires.

Other Knoxville businesses have been active in assisting the recovery effort, including local food truck Oishii Knox, which has been giving away free meals to first responders and Liberty Ink Tattoo, which created a special design, with all proceeds going to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund.

Last week, singer Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood amusement park sits right outside Gatlinburg, announced a fund to provide residents who lost their homes, like Gilliam, $1,000 per month for six months to help them re-establish themselves.

Mellon, who manages a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts in the local area, praised the Knoxville community for rallying to support their neighbors.

For her part, she said she plans to take Gilliam out for dinner and host her until she gets back on her feet.

Lacy Mellon and husband Jonathan. Photo by Lacy Mellon.

"I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs."

Gilliam said she's enormously grateful to Mellon for putting her and Jess up and to Sugarlands Distillery for its support.

According to Gilliam, the company has pledged to help her and Jess find permanent housing in Gatlinburg. The couple is committed to returning, and Gilliam hopes that visitors will continue seek the city out — as she and Jess did many times early in their relationship, before they lived there — despite the tragedy.

Gilliam (R) and wife Jess (L). Photo by Rachel Gilliam.

From time to time, Gilliam regrets what was lost in the fire — her grandfather's handkerchiefs, a collection of Disney and Star Wars memorabilia, and hundreds of movies. Still, she's thankful for what wasn't.

"Things are just things, but we are safe, and that's what matters."

This could be the guest house.


Inequality has gotten worse than you think.

An investigation by former "Daily Show" correspondent Hasan Minhaj is still perfectly apt and shows that the problem isn't just your classic case of "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Keep ReadingShow less
Kevin Parry / Twitter

Toronto-based animator and video wizard Kevin Parry has gone mega-viral for his mind-boggling collection of videos where he turns himself into random objects.

In a series of quick clips he changes into everything from a pumpkin to a bright yellow banana and in most of the videos, he appears to suffer a ridiculous death. The videos combine studio trickery with a magician's flair.

Keep ReadingShow less
Pop Culture

A brave fan asks Patrick Stewart a question he doesn't usually get and is given a beautiful answer

Patrick Stewart often talks about his childhood and the torment his father put him and his mother through.

Patrick Stewart often talks about his childhood and the torment his father put him and his mother through. However, how he answered this vulnerable and brave fan's question is one of the most eloquent, passionate responses about domestic violence I've ever seen.

Keep ReadingShow less

A map of the United States post land-ice melt.


Land ice: We got a lot of it.

Considering the two largest ice sheets on earth — the one on Antarctica and the one on Greenland — extend more than 6 million square miles combined ... yeah, we're talkin' a lot of ice.

But what if it was all just ... gone? Not like gone gone, but melted?

Keep ReadingShow less
OriginalAll photos belong to Red Méthot, who gave me permission to share them here.

Chloé was born at 32 weeks.


Every single day, babies across the world are born prematurely, which means that they're born before 37 weeks of gestation.

In Canada, about 29,000 infants are born prematurely each year, roughly 1 in every 13. But in the United States, around 400,000 to 500,000 are born early. That's about 1 in every 8 to 10 babies born in the U.S.!

Red Méthot, a Canadian photographer and student, decided to capture the resilience of many of these kids for a school photography project.

Keep ReadingShow less
Democracy

Teacher tries to simulate a dictatorship in her classroom, but the students crushed her

"I’ve done this experiment numerous times, and each year I have similar results. This year, however, was different."

Each year that I teach the book "1984" I turn my classroom into a totalitarian regime under the guise of the "common good."

I run a simulation in which I become a dictator. I tell my students that in order to battle "Senioritis," the teachers and admin have adapted an evidence-based strategy, a strategy that has "been implemented in many schools throughout the country and has had immense success." I hang posters with motivational quotes and falsified statistics, and provide a false narrative for the problem that is "Senioritis."

Keep ReadingShow less