Chanelle Kimber was having the worst day of her life.
On Wednesday, the 31-year-old mother of two daughters received the news that Cheryl Avery, her 75-year-old grandmother, had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
“My grandmother is my lifeline,” Kimber said. “It was completely devastating.”
It is her grandmother who takes care of her daughters — Adalynn, age 8, and Korey, age 3 — when they are not in school. It is her grandmother who takes care of her mother, an Army veteran who is nonverbal after suffering a series of strokes. It is her grandmother who helps out at her new bakery, The Bougie Cookie Boutique.
That evening, Kimber and her cousin gathered in her living room to process the upsetting news.
And then they noticed a wisp of smoke coming up through a heating duct.
Within minutes, Kimber’s horrible day would become much worse.
‘A very, very hard worker’
Kimber fell into baking by accident. At the age of 18, she started working in the bakery at Wegmans in order to put herself through college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Roberts Wesleyan University with the goal of becoming a medical researcher.
But she found that her real love was baking, and decided to continue working in that field with the ultimate goal of starting her own business.
“Chanelle is a very, very hard worker and she’s extremely motivated,” said Mina Hoyt, who founded Something Delicious Bake Shop and employed Kimber for four years there. “She puts her mind to something and she does it.”
Kimber told Hoyt about her dreams of owning her own bakery. Hoyt discouraged her, saying that it was stressful to own a business.
“That first year is very nerve-wracking,” Hoyt said. “The first year in business you’ll know if you’ll fail or not. It’s a lot of work.” Hoyt ultimately sold her bakery and went to work for the University of Rochester.
But Kimber persisted. When a retail space spot opened up beneath the Culver Road apartment where the family had lived for past eight years, it seemed like the perfect fit.
She spent her life savings installing a commercial kitchen and getting the space ready to open. The Bougie Cookie Boutique opened at 1013 Culver Road in the summer, selling a variety of cookies included French macarons and decorated cut-outs.
At the same time, she worked full time as a pharmacy tech for Walgreens.
She was working 90 to 100 hours a week in all, but it was worth it, Kimber said. “I really overextended myself,” she said. “I did everything I could to give my kids a better life.”
Business picked up for the holidays, and Kimber had a lot of orders on the books.
But in the span of an evening, she’d be back to square one.
‘I completely broke down’
When Kimber noticed that first wisp of smoke, she pulled up the vent to look more closely. Smoke poured out, and it was clear there was a fire in the building.
She and her cousin ran into her daughters’ bedroom. As they grabbed the sleeping girls out of their beds, they saw smoke pouring out of their vent. They dashed out the door and called 911. It was 9:45 p.m.
They sat in the car and saw that smoke was also coming from the bakery, and firefighters arrived to put out the fire. Cheryl Avery, still coming to grips with her diagnosis, arrived to collect the children.
From her car, Kimber kept watching the situation unfold. Finally, she was allowed back in the building.
The bakery was in a shambles, with the counters ripped out and debris strewn throughout the space. The roof was gone. Only the area around the ovens didn’t burn, so she knows the fire didn’t start in the kitchen.
“I put my heart, my soul, my life savings, all of my money into this bakery,” she said. “It’s really heartbreaking right now.”
Upstairs, their home was destroyed, with the outside wall completely gone. It was uninhabitable.
“I completely broke down,” she said. “I was screaming and crying. I had no idea my house was really gone.”
The fire will be investigated, but the fact that it started between the walls seems to point to an electrical fire.
The American Red Cross gave her a $500 gift card, which will cover just a few nights of a hotel room. Friends have brought some snacks and clothing, and they are living out of the totes they arrived in. She doesn’t know where she’ll go next.
The business was insured but she doesn’t expect to see a payment for months; she has no renter’s insurance. People have asked her what she needs, but she’s overwhelmed by the idea of itemizing her entire life. But she knows the first priority is finding a place to live.
She went back to the apartment Thursday to see if any pictures or personal items that were salvageable.
“All of my kids’ Christmas presents – everything was in that house,” she said.
She also looked for her two cats, Bubbles and Thomas; amid the confusion of the fire, they ran off and have yet to be located.
Her daughters don’t fully comprehend what has happened, and keep saying they want to retrieve things from the apartment.
“It’s hard to explain to them that we’re not going home,” she said.
A GoFundMe fundraiser has been started for Kimber and her daughters.
Tracy Schuhmacher is food and drink reporter and a storytelling coach for the USA Today Network’s Storytellers Project. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow. Thanks to our subscribers for supporting local journalism.