BELVA — In the 10 to 15 minutes between the time she posted the day’s special and kids’ meal for Steph’s Fire Pit on June 1 and the time owner/operator Stephanie Adkins came back to her popular little restaurant after running an errand to her home, situated directly behind the tiny building, a fire had ignited and black smoke was pouring from the restaurant’s rear windows.

Adkins tried to get in the front door, but the restaurant was full of smoke and flames were licking up the back wall. Unfortunately, the building’s fire extinguisher was located behind her counter, close to the back wall.

“That day it happened, I couldn’t see beyond that moment,” Adkins said in a phone interview. “My first reaction was, I couldn’t get in there. I’ve never seen such black smoke so fast.

“Then the fire jumped to the counter there where I had some bags set up for the kids’ lunches. I couldn’t get back there to the fire extinguisher,” she said.

“My first thought was literally ‘I can’t feed the kids today.’”

Feeding the kids

Besides offering a daily special through the Covid-19 shutdown, Adkins, who opened the Fire Pit in November 2017, made free kids’ meals each weekday for the local children who were unable to go school.

“I didn’t start that because of financial concerns people had,” she said of feeding the children. “I started that because I’m the mama of three kids, two of ‘em boys, and I know how much they ate.

“I wanted to give their mothers a break (and) I wanted to give those kids something to look forward to, something stable, and this was something allowing these kids to get away from the TV or whatever, something to look forward to.

“And they did,” she said. “They smiled and they thanked me and you could tell they always looked forward to coming in and getting that meal. They didn’t care if it was something they liked; they didn’t even care if it was good,” she laughed.

Adkins, who had served over 1600 free meals during the shutdown, missed the children and the children missed Adkins, so she already has started providing free kids’ meals on an irregular basis from her home kitchen, passing them out from her deck.

“One woman told me that her little girl was 5-years old and she cried when she heard about the fire.

“I have one little girl that calls me Chef Steph. She had her Mom send me a video she made that said ‘Chef Steph I love you.’

“Trust me,” she said. “I get more out of it than the kids do.”

“Those are the moments that have really gotten to me. It’s almost like a mourning process. I’ve not lost any loved ones, but it has been overwhelming the number of people who have reached out to me,” she said.

Her love of cooking

“I’m not the best cook in the world. I just love doing it and I feel like that’s a gift. I don’t remember a time I didn’t cook.

“(The Fire Pit) is no Oppie’s,” she said, referring to the beloved restaurant across from the former Gauley Bridge High School where generations of GBHS students were served by Oppie and Opal Winebrenner, “but we all have to eat and we all love good food and that’s just something that unites everybody.

“Pam Arbogast is a good friend of mine and she told her husband that my daughter brought the best food to (Valley High) school,” Adkins recalls.

Other people who had eaten her food encouraged Adkins to open a restaurant or at least sell her food. “When are you going to start cooking,” she was asked.

She and her husband, Ron, discussed the possibility of her opening a restaurant and, in 2016, “We ordered the building and the building was delivered and the next day the flood happened.”

The June 2016 flood which brought up to 10 inches of rain in 24 hours to parts of Fayette, Nicholas, Kanawha, Summers and Greenbrier counties and claimed 23 lives put a halt to the Adkins’ plans.

“I got up the next morning and was just thankful that we had only lost some material things,” she said.

The couple collected cleaning supplies and other items and spent the next three months passing out “bleach and mops and anything else.”

Later, Ron told Stephanie, “We need to do what that building was put there for.”

“It took us about a year to really get it going,” she said. “It’s been so much a part of my whole family’s life because they’ve all worked so hard on it, (and) I knew how important that little restaurant was to me, but I honestly had no idea how much that little stack of sticks meant to other people.”

The day it all changed

When Adkins realized she couldn’t get to the fire extinguisher, she headed into her house and called the Gauley River Volunteer Fire Department and her husband.

“Mat Neil was the first one here. The fire department was incredible. There were here in record time and did such a great job in saving my house,” she said of her home which was within 20 feet of the restaurant.

“These are kids that I’ve watched grow up. The first young man who showed up, he said, ‘Steph, what’s in there?’ ‘cause it went from not a big deal to ‘This is scary’ in just three minutes. There was really nothing that could be done. Those guys, they knew there was nothing they could do (to save the restaurant), but they saved my house,” she said.

“These kids who saved my home and could’ve gotten hurt, they’re my kids’ ages. They knew exactly what they were doing and they were so professional. They were amazing,” she said.

“They’ve got a dinner coming to them at some point. I’m gonna take care of them.”

Anyone who has suffered through a fire can empathize with Adkins’ feelings that day.

“That day it happened, I couldn’t see beyond that moment,” she said. “My mind was not even functioning properly. Trudy (Boothe) came down and she said, ‘Stephanie, we’ve got to do this, this and this. She was just a rock that day when it happened.”

Adkins said a number of people stopped by to help or to express their desire to help, but before the end of the day a large number of her Facebook friends had spread the news.

Her future in-law took that offer one step further.

Supporting the rebuilding of the Fire Pit

Beth Rose Fish, a fellow Gauley Bridge High graduate, and soon to be the Adkins’ in-law, knew she had to do something to help out.

Fish’s daughter, Shelby Jarvis, and Adkins’ son, Colton, are to be married on Aug. 1, but Fish said she would have wanted to help anyway because of all the Fire Pit has meant to the area.

“I knew I wanted to try to do something, but I just wasn’t sure what exactly,” Fish said this week.

“I was sitting at home trying to come up with something when I got a phone call from Lorri (Burford Siemiaczko, a GBHS grad who now lives in North Carolina). She said, ‘OK, who’s starting a GoFundMe?’

“And I thought ‘Well, that’s perfect,’” Fish said.

The Steph’s Fire Pit Rebuild GoFundMe site is located at https://www.gofundme.com/f/stephs-fire-pit-rebuild?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=p_na+share-sheet&rcid=a28c5a1539ed4654b335ba4c6893d149&fbclid=IwAR3woozTNw_JXcqWIy3fmiiB2xe8pAkvhe3J2mCOUb_CeeF5l7i7Jf8EXJw.

Another individual, Bill Corley of Fayetteville, has gotten together with some friends and scheduled “Friends and Family Paddle for a Great Cause” for Saturday, June 27 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The event will be a kayak paddle on the Gauley River from Swiss to Gauley Bridge for a donation of $10. On the event page Corley created, he explains his reasoning for hosting the event.

“I shared a post the other day about Stephanie's Fire Pit and some of us got to chatting and things have happened. Turns out this lady is the type that helps a bunch of people in her area (especially kids) and is just overall good folk and would be the last person to ask for help herself. So a couple of folks suggested doing a fundraiser for her and I made some calls and here we go,” he wrote.

“My first call was Mike Bone at Warm Hands from Warm Hearts-Fayette County. (I) told him the situation and asked about the huge mobile grill and he said he'd like to join in by doing a cookout fundraiser. I’ve got a 15-passenger van that I will volunteer to shuttle people and WHWH will let me use their kayak trailer to bring the boats too for maybe a donation for her rebuilding.

“Anyone that knows me will tell you this is my favorite area to kayak. We have several places we can put in and pull out boats and this could be the perfect chance to go with some folks that have experience on this section of the river,” he said.

“This section of the Gauley is flat-water and (in my opinion) the best 3-4 hour trip you can spend with old and new friends or just a family float to enjoy the quiet time together (no cell service).

“There is one small shoal after the Jodie bridge that I like to see some caution and instruction on, but there is a section that I can take the first time in a boat people too.

“I’ve never met this lady myself but I know she’s been hit from every direction not just this year but for a while. Her area has been hit hard with not only mines closing but the opioids, not even to mention the fact that this is the most ignored area of Fayette County and there will be no help from any form of government to her,” Corley wrote.

“I would love to see just how many boats we could get on the river on a single day to help this family out. It would be awesome to be so overwhelmed with folks wanting a shuttle I’d have to enlist more help.”

To learn more, visit the Facebook event page at https://www.facebook.com/events/287465109102830/.

Gratitude and a new beginning

“I have to rebuild. It’s like a community project. It’s been amazing how many people have reached out to me,” Adkins said.

Her husband, Ron, is already working on getting the Fire Pit back up and running, she said.

“He’s going to try to salvage what he can,” she said, adding he has already moved the building, which retained its walls and floor, and plans to use it as a workshop.

“He wants to do a concrete floor, cinderblock walls and a metal roof,” she said of the new restaurant. “I’ve got people who have been here since I’ve been open and they’re all like family. They’ve stuck by me and they can’t wait to see me back.

“I’ve heard from so many GBHS alums from the ’80s who’ve messaged me wanting to help. That just blew my mind,” she said.

“I miss the neighbors. I miss my community. I miss my family and friends that I was used to seeing daily. I miss it a lot.

“I had no idea how much it meant to so many other people. It’s been incredible to see the kindness and the generosity and the helpfulness of so many people,” she said.

People often ask Adkins how she can be so upbeat: “How are you always so happy?” “Why are you always smiling?”

“I’m too blessed to get down and allow myself to stay there,” she said. “You know it could always be worse.”

Not that there haven’t been tears.

“I’ve cried every day. It was obviously such a sad thing that it happened to begin with, but so many people have just reached out and been kind.

“I can never repay the kindness, the generosity of so many people. It’s been such a blessing. It’s just been unbelievable that people kind of understand how much of me was in that little bitty restaurant. It’s just been so incredible,” she said.

“I keep saying ‘blessing,’ but there’s no better word to describe what I’ve received from all of this,” Adkins said.

Email: ckeenan@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @Fayette_Cheryl

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