, Salem, MA

April 10, 2014

Picking up the tab

Restaurants feed family displaced by fire, for free

By Neil H. Dempsey
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — It’s not just losing your belongings. It’s not just living out of bags in a series of hotel rooms with your boyfriend and 9-year-old daughter.

It’s the everyday kind of stuff, like making meals.

Michele Baldassari said one of the most difficult parts of life for her and her family since they emerged physically unscathed from the fire that destroyed their apartment on School Street last week is that now she has nowhere to cook.

Hotels offer limited cooking options at best, and Baldassari said the family’s room at the Clipper Ship Inn features only a microwave and a refrigerator.

Also, promising leads to rent new apartments have so far amounted to nothing.

“I don’t know how long this is going to go on for,” she said. “It ain’t easy to find apartments.”

Now, thanks to an effort kick-started by her friend Jennifer Vargas, Baldassari, her boyfriend, Augustine Vega, and her daughter, Aaliyah, have been eating dinners for free at a number of charity-minded local restaurants.

Vargas said she heard about the fire and immediately contacted Baldassari when she realized her friend was involved. The two have known each other since they were middle-school age.

“She told me she wasn’t really getting any help at all,” Vargas said. “I just started cold-calling restaurants.”

The family actually had received some help already. The Red Cross paid for them to stay at Hawthorne Hotel for two nights. John Boris, chairman of the Salem Housing Authority, has been helping pay for their hotel rooms since then and using his contacts in the community to try to find them a new place.

“If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I’d do,” Baldassari said. “It’s just so scary ... the last thing that’s going to end up happening is I’m going to be living in my car.”

But Vargas thought Baldassari, who is disabled, needed more. Many local restaurants agreed, including Victoria Station, where the family ate last night and is planning to eat Easter brunch with extended family — all for free.

Elizabeth Collett, general manager at the restaurant, said the business had previously helped a family devastated by a fire. “We have kind of a good history of community involvement.” The tab for the family’s meals will be absorbed by the restaurant, she said.

“The owner’s a really good guy,” Collett said, referring to Keith Barsanti. “It’s not a problem.”

The family has also eaten on the house at Tavern in the Square and Joe’s Bar and Grill, and Vargas has scheduled free meals for them over the next two weeks at 99 Restaurant on Bridge Street, Texas Roadhouse, Applebee’s, Bertucci’s, Olive Garden, Five Guys, the Waterfront Hotel, Chuck E. Cheese and North House of Pizza. Also, Ken’s Kickin’ Chicken has offered to donate prepared meals to the family.

“They all deserve a shout-out for helping us, you know what I mean?” Baldassari said. “God bless them.”

Baldassari’s family has received help from other corners, including Carlton Elementary School, which donated clothing, and both the Massachusetts Association for Community Action and the Salvation Army, which have offered to help pay the deposit for a new apartment.

Also, a local Catholic charity has donated Target gift cards to the family, some of Aaliyah’s friends have given her toys, and Baldassari has received clothing from friends.

Amid all the help, Baldassari said the restaurant meals stand out because they offer something that’s hard to come by these days — family time when the three can try to relax.

All the same, she said it was difficult to distract herself from such a daunting situation, particularly because of its effect on her daughter, who doesn’t understand why the family can’t settle in one place.

“That’s what’s confusing her, what’s making her sad — that we have to keep moving like bad people every three days,” she said. “My poor daughter has barely nothing.”

Boris said he is hopeful that the housing issue will work out soon, but he admitted that he was having trouble finding a two-bedroom apartment in Salem with a reasonable rent price.

“It’s like all of the apartments in Salem have dried up,” he said.

Applebee’s has gone further than offering a free meal: the Danvers restaurant has committed to donate to the family 15 percent of the total meal cost for anybody eating between 3 and 9 p.m. on April 16, provided they show a related flier when they show up.

That flier can be obtained by emailing Vargas at

Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at