Alissa Sullivan, a member of the Hazel Park City Council, shares a moment with Elle, a client’s dog through her business, Pet Sitting by Alissa. Sullivan continues to recover after a fire last year destroyed her home and killed her pets. She said it’s thanks to the community that she is recovering.

Alissa Sullivan, a member of the Hazel Park City Council, shares a moment with Elle, a client’s dog through her business, Pet Sitting by Alissa. Sullivan continues to recover after a fire last year destroyed her home and killed her pets. She said it’s thanks to the community that she is recovering.

Photo provided by Alissa Sullivan


Hazel Park woman continues to thank those who helped her in time of need

House fire claimed beloved pets of City Councilwoman

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published November 20, 2019

 While she’s not yet ready to permanently house another dog, Sullivan has taken on two pet rats, Pele and Phoenix.

While she’s not yet ready to permanently house another dog, Sullivan has taken on two pet rats, Pele and Phoenix.

Photo provided by Alissa Sullivan

HAZEL PARK — Nearly a year ago, something unimaginably horrible happened to Alissa Sullivan, a member of the Hazel Park City Council and an advocate for animals.

An electrical malfunction caused a wire to catch fire within the walls of her home. While she was out buying groceries, she was notified by her neighbors, who called 911. She rushed home and called the city manager on the way, begging him to rush the Fire Department to the scene. The firefighters, of course, were already en route.

But it wasn’t her material possessions that she was worried about; it was her beloved pets, among them three rescue dogs, three foster cats and her mother’s dogs. They were her everything — close companions of a woman who has dedicated herself to animal welfare, with her own business in pet care and countless hours of volunteer work saving the most vulnerable animals.

Yet in a cruel twist of fate, her pets all died that day — Dec. 19, 2018. The blaze was so hot that it melted the smoke detectors in her home on Hoover Avenue. Sullivan had done everything right to minimize fire hazards: She doesn’t smoke, she doesn’t use candles, and she even unplugs her appliances when not at home. What happened to her could happen to anyone. And at first she didn’t know how to make sense of the situation.

Today, she is still recovering from the trauma of that day. But she said she has gotten back on her feet, with home repairs underway, her business thriving, and even a couple of domesticated, neutered, trainable baby rats in her care. She said she’s not ready yet to permanently house another dog. But since the fire, she has fostered a dog through River Rouge Animal Shelter, and a cat and eight kittens through Paws for Life.

“It felt right to help animals that need it. It gave me an opportunity to start to heal,” Sullivan said. “I miss my dogs and foster cats (that I lost in the fire) every day. I’m grateful for the time I had with them, but I will always wish I had more.”

Slowly but surely, she is getting better — and it’s all thanks, she said, to the generosity of the community in her time of need. Overnight, a GoFundMe started by her friend Tammy Pereira, of Birmingham, raised $5,000. It raised nearly $30,000 in the weeks immediately following. Those funds are helping her to rebuild her house. Other acts of kindness also made all the difference in the world during her darkest hour, such as Faithful Companion handling her pets’ aftercare.

At the time, she was overwhelmed by the support, giving thanks to those people and groups, and many more, including City Manager Ed Klobucher and Fire Chief Richard Story; the firefighters and police officers; her friends Megan Reese, Lauren Critzon, Kelly McLaughlin, Elsie Woods, Megan Hajec, Kat Stevens and Amy Aubry; her neighbors Nettie, Joe and Nic Hill, who notified her and called first responders; Amber Phillips and her family; Hilton Vet, Bark Nation, Dog Aide, Paws for Life, and Friends of Detroit Animal Care and Control; her employer, Gusoline Alley; her family, including her mother; and, of course, the countless people who donated amounts large and small, all of it making a difference.

And she’s still thanking them today.

“I just have to say that without the support of the Fire Department, Police Department, city staff, city services, and so many friends and neighbors and residents I’d never met before, I don’t know how I would have made it through this. I really don’t,” Sullivan said. “I think I’m an independent, outgoing person, and I try to stay positive. But at the time where everything I loved was lost, I needed that support. At some point, we all do.”

    
Paying it forward
The city manager vividly remembers that fateful night.

“I was standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when I got a call from Alissa telling me her house was on fire. … When I got there, the Fire Department was still putting out the fire,” Klobucher said. “It was an absolutely heartbreaking, horrific scene. The house was gutted; she lost almost all of her possessions, and her beloved animals were all gone. It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.”

He recalled how several of Sullivan’s friends from the animal rescue community showed up, even taking plaster paw prints of her animals and respectfully placing the dead in containers.

“Despite being devastated by the situation, Alissa thanked the Hazel Park Fire and Police departments for their response and their help,” Klobucher said. “The outpouring of support from the community for Alissa was incredible. Alissa handled the fire with grace and courage.”

Sullivan said that dealing with grief has been an ongoing process.

“I think that I’m still healing and growing every day. Some days are better than others. … Sometimes things will upset me that I didn’t expect to, and other times I’m OK,” Sullivan said. “I will tell you that trauma has a really big effect on things, more than just your emotional well-being.

“What I’ve experienced has brought me new perspective and understanding,” she added. “I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that you can learn something from everything you experience, and that is important to me — to always keep learning. A phrase that I found to bring me focus, taken from a famous MLK quote, is to ‘keep moving forward.’ You don’t get over great loss or tragedy like this, but you move forward through it. So I’m doing my best to keep doing that.”    

She said she advises people to make sure they always have a fire escape plan, to make sure their smoke detectors always have fresh batteries, and to make sure their neighbors have their phone number and vice versa. She also said that it’s crucial to have insurance, whether one’s a renter or a homeowner, and to make sure they have enough coverage. Sullivan said she did not.

Keeping busy has helped, she said. Sullivan has tried to pay forward the goodwill of the community by finding more ways to keep pets safe. She learned that the Hazel Park Fire Department has animal oxygen masks, but the firefighters and police officers hadn’t been specifically trained in animal CPR and first aid. Sullivan reached out to Amanda Zimmerman, the owner of Save 1 CPR in Ferndale, who generously donated that training to all of the city’s firefighters and police officers, all at no charge in memory of Sullivan’s pets.

“I can’t thank her enough, or the officers who were gracious enough to accept this training to better protect all our residents,” Sullivan said. “Her kindness helped heal my heart just a bit.”

She also continues to pour her heart into her business, Pet Sitting by Alissa, which won WDIV’s Best 4 Pets “Best Dog Walker” and “Best Pet Sitter” awards for 2019. She said her business has seen amazing growth in the past year, which is encouraging to her since it was one of the only things she had left after the fire.

In addition, Sullivan is the founder of Hazel Park Community Cats, a nonprofit that provides free spaying and neutering for outdoor cats, as well as vaccines and treatments for parasites, believing that such cats can add to the quality of life in neighborhoods. The nonprofit, which is funded nearly entirely with Sullivan’s pay from the City Council, as well as several grants over the last year, also provides safe and humane remedies for keeping stray cats (and even squirrels) out of one’s yard. She is also working with the local animal control officer and city attorney to update city ordinances to better address the needs of displaced cats and the residents who care for them.

She emphasized again that she can’t thank everyone enough.

“I never expected to face such a huge loss. I assume most of us don’t. I have said many times over this past year that I am so very grateful for this city and the outpouring of support from neighbors and even strangers here in Hazel Park. I received letters, cards, donations, clothing, cash. We are not a wealthy city by any means, but we care about each other and we help each other any way we can. I don’t feel I would’ve seen this support had I lived anywhere else. Truly,” Sullivan said. “I had a family I helped with a dog issue in the city (that) wanted to give me something, and their daughter made me the sweetest card — I plan to frame it and hang it in my house. I had strangers stop by and ask how I’ve been. People reached out on Facebook. It really was just awe-inspiring kindness I was shown.

“So thank you to everyone who saw that I needed you,” she said. “No matter if you called, texted, mailed, stopped by or even had a friend deliver your kind thoughts, I appreciate every single one of you and what you did for me during the worst time of my life.”

Save 1 CPR of Ferndale is hosting an online fundraiser for Bark Nation, to donate to it, visit save1cpr.com/donate.html