When I met Tiffany Wilson in 2004, she was a single mom, 31, living with her young son and mother in a Southwest Philly rowhouse, where she stayed up late creating care packages for U.S. troops in Iraq.
She had dashed off an email to the web addresses of 200 military ships and various platoons, offering moral support and her thanks for their service.
Their appreciative responses so touched her heart, she vowed to keep the connection going with men and women who missed home like crazy.
For the next four years, Tiffany, an administrative assistant, spent thousands of dollars of her own money sending hand-made gifts to a core of 15 soldiers, who then handed out the items to the troops.
There were candy-adorned valentine cards in February. Mini Christmas stockings in December. Holiday-themed confections and notes other times of the year. They were received by grateful men and women who told me, back then, how Wilson's efforts boosted their morale.
"I feel compelled to help," said Wilson at the time. So she also took calls in the night from soldiers who didn't want to worry their families but needed someone to talk to. Wilson bravely listened to their fears.
"They strap machine guns on their backs every day," she said. "I'll hang in there for them as long as they hang in there for me."
Thirteen years later, Tiffany could use some of the same generosity she once lavished on strangers. Two weeks ago, her house caught fire. It was uninsured, as Tiffany – who is now 42, married and lives in Ogden, Delaware County – has been through a brutal financial stretch.
She left her administrative job eight years ago to care for her mother, who just died of Alzheimer's disease. She is now helping her mother-in-law, who has cancer. The financial and emotional stress has been crushing, but she and her husband, Rich Lane, are working through it.
"We love each other and we love the kids," she says of Matthew, 19; Lena, 7; and Richie, 6. "That's what matters."
So did having an adorable ranch home that she and Rich bought at auction for cash and rehabbed by themselves (Rich, a welder, is really handy).
But on Jan. 29, Lena accidentally burned down half the house while playing with stuffed animals and a lighter. She later told Tiffany that she felt "cold" and started the fire the way she had seen someone start one on TV.
"I'll never understand the logic and thought processes of a 7-year-old," sighs Tiffany.
Everybody made it out alive. But because the house was uninsured (Tiffany and Rich let the policy lapse when money got tight), they have no funds to repair the house.
"We can do the work ourselves, just like we did before," says Tiffany, describing how she and Rich hunted down construction bargains to make their house a home. "We just need help to get started."
The Red Cross and the Community Action Agency of Delaware County have been godsends, supplying the family with debit cards for clothes and incidentals and putting them up in a hotel. Friends, too, have donated clothes to replace items lost in the blaze.
Still, the family needs more to get a roof back over their heads. Tiffany has started a $35,000 gofundme campaign, but it's barely limping along.
"Hey, everyone' struggling," she says. "I understand."
When I met big-hearted Tiffany in 2004, I thought she was one of the kindest people I'd ever interviewed. And she defined what everyday patriotism looks like: Folks, on their own, doing what they can for their country from hearts filled with love, duty and pride. Since then, motherhood has forced her to scale back her care-package ministry. But she still writes letters to soldiers via military penpal clubs because, she says, "We should all do what we can."
She has never been on the front lines but she has always supported those who are by creating a feeling of home for soldiers who are homesick.
She has never expected anything in return. But these days she could use a little payback.
If you'd like to help, go to "Lane Family Fire Rebuild"at