Jennifer Neilson (photo at right) suffered severe burns when she tried to put out the fire in the tent she was sleeping in in Chilliwack on Nov. 8. (Paul Henderson/Progress & Facebook)

Chilliwack homeless woman burned in fire was trying to save church

Jennifer Nielson’s mother says she was trying to put out the blaze when her coat caught fire

Cynthia Nielson’s adult daughter Jennifer has struggled with addictions and homelessness for years.

Cynthia said over the years Jennifer often asked for help to get into treatment to return to a sober lifestyle and reconnect with her two sons, but long waiting lists along with her own demons meant it never happened.

Now the 38-year-old has the battle of her life on her hands as she recovers from devastating burns.

“She’s got a long, long road ahead of her,” Cynthia told The Progress this week. “She’s burned pretty bad.”

Jennifer is the homeless woman who suffered life-threatening injuries Nov. 8 after an early morning fire in a tent next to a Chilliwack church.

READ MORE: Homeless woman engulfed in flames in overnight tent fire

Cynthia said the police told her there was video of the fire, video that tells a different story than what was first reported. Jennifer wasn’t in the tent trying to keep warm with candles when she was burned. She was outside and was burned trying to put the fire out to save the church.

“The reason she got burned is she was worried about the church,” Cynthia said. “You could see on her face she would try to put the fire out and step away. She tried three of four times then her coat caught fire.

“She was more concerned about the church and the people than she was her own safety.”

For all her faults in her troubled life, looking on her daughter’s tragedy as only a mother could, Cynthia is convinced her daughter nearly died trying to save the church when her tent caught on fire.

“She’s always been that way even as a little girl. It breaks my heart. And I’ve heard so many stories about people out there that she helps before she helps herself.

“I’m proud at the same time as sad. Now I’m hoping that she has to focus on herself now and maybe this will be a blessing in disguise.”

While early on it was unclear if Jennifer would even survive her severe injuries, that even included burns to the inside of her throat, things took a positive turn lately. Doctors at the burn unit at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) were able to remove breathing tubes over the weekend. She is in a lot of pain but she is able to communicate.

Jennifer has two sons, aged 16 and 20, whom Cynthia raised, and now Cynthia struggles to even get to VGH to be with Jennifer. Going back and forth to take care of the youngest boy and to be with her daughter costs too much. Cynthia lives on a disability pension and says she can barely afford groceries, let alone gas.

READ MORE: Opinion: Homeless at risk

And with a long road to recovery ahead with rehabilitation and skin grafts, Cynthia isn’t sure how she’ll manage to help her daughter once she’s out of hospital.

“I don’t have the funds to help her out. I’m raising her children,” she said. “I want to make sure I can get as many things in place now for her, safe housing or whatever she needs. Everything she owned was in that buggy. She has nothing left, no ID. She is blind as a bat without her glasses.”

Cynthia’s friend Jocelyn Millius reached out to The Progress to see if the community could help her in this difficult time.

“I used to live in Chilliwack but moved to west Kelowna a couple of years ago,” she said. “My memories of Chilliwack were always a close-knit community that cared about others.”

RELATED: Chilliwack woman dies in woodland homeless camp

Millius suggested someone set up a GoFundMe page for Cynthia, something she said she wasn’t tech-savvy enough to do, but Cynthia said she doesn’t like the idea because GoFundMe takes a percentage of the money donated.

“No company should benefit from people’s misery,” she said. “That’s just not right in my books. I just keep moving forward and if people can help out, donate to the burn unit because the doctors are working so hard.

“I’m just going to plug away and by the grace of God do I have gas and a place to stay.”


@PeeJayAitch
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

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