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Coffee club friends help after fire

It was a rough holiday for an East Lake woman and her family. But friends and baristas at the Starbucks where she's a regular make it easier.

Published December 28, 2005

PALM HARBOR - A fire may have put a roadblock in the Bendlin family's Christmas plans. But friendship paved another way.

A two-alarm fire late Dec. 21 blazed through the upper half of the family's East Lake home, causing the second floor to collapse. The blaze also severely damaged the roof and attic.

When word of the fire got back to Sharon Bendlin's coffee group at Starbucks, the members decided to help.

"She's the first person to give you the shirt off her back," Tracy Bucenell said."So, when she was left with only one shirt on her back, literally, I wanted to help."

Bucenell, a part-time saleswoman, and Bendlin, a critical care nurse with SunStar ambulance service, met two years ago. They would both show up about the same time every morning at the Starbucks on Ridgemoor Boulevard in Palm Harbor. Eventually, the women began to sit a while and chat before going their separate ways. Others joined in.

Their meetings turned into an informal coffee club. Every weekday morning, a crowd of 10 or so congregates in the coffee shop's patio and catch up over the daily brew.

Thursday, the day after the fire, Bucenell sent an e-mail detailing the tragedy to Mason Dixon, a popular personality on the WRBQ-FM 104.7 morning radio show. Every holiday season, Dixon and his wife, Pat, donate money to people or families in need through their "Christmas Wish" program.

In 12 sentences, Bucenell persuaded the Dixons to make Sharon and Michael Bendlin wish recipients. The program donated $1,000 to the Bendlin family.

In addition, staff at the Ridgemoor Starbucks gave the family a gift certificate to Target. And Sharon Bendlin's coffee group gave the family a gift certificate for eight meals at Dream CuiZine, a service that lets you create a meal packaged for cooking later.

The family, now living with friends, was able to buy new gifts before Christmas. They spent the day with family and friends, Bendlin said.

It could take as long as a year before they can move back into their home, according to the insurance company. The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage.

A discarded cigarette caused the fire, said East Lake Fire & Rescue Fire Marshal Steve Rogers.

The cigarette was in an astray that was on a bed. But it was not sufficiently extinguished and sparked a fire on the bed, which eventually went up in flames, Rogers said.

The fire spread from the bedroom.

The family's 18-year-old son was the only one home when the fire began. The teen had stepped outside onto the front lawn just after placing the cigarette down, Rogers said. When he came back inside, he saw smoke and called the police, Bendlin said.

The family lost a chameleon named Sublime. And their cat, Mary Jane, was thought to have escaped. The family has since learned that she was killed in the blaze.

"We're just starting to absorb it all," Bendlin said. "We lost animals that we loved, but we still feel that we're so very blessed that our son made it out."

Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 445-4162 or

[Last modified December 28, 2005, 00:59:20]

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