Editor’s Note: Babble and Freeform are both a part of The Walt Disney Company.
“We got out of the house in beat-up yard shoes and pajamas,” recalls Annie Olcese of the Tubbs Fire that swept northern California this past October, forcing the 29-year-old mother and her family to evacuate. “Everyone hopped into a car and we all drove off. There was an orange glow everywhere and hot embers were being whipped around by the wind … “
With only 15 minutes to evacuate, Annie, her husband Henry, and their two kids — Selah, 4, and Henry, 2 — only managed to escape with a few things from their house, including the kids’ baby blankets, their two laptops, and a box of paperwork. Everything else — the house, their cats, and all of their belongings — were gone forever.
Within moments, the Olcese’s had become one of the millions of families who lost their homes due to a natural disaster this year, and the experience left them heartbroken.
“We were in denial for a while,” admits Annie, who was later told be a neighbor that their whole neighborhood was wiped out. “Because it was a third-hand story,” she explains, “we tried to stay optimistic for the first few days, but it eventually sunk in.”
The reality of losing everything was understandably devastating. But little did they know, their luck was about to change.
After the evacuation, the Olceses slept on Annie’s parents’ living room floor, as they figured out what to do next. They tell Babble that eventually, the family moved into an RV in Sonoma County, in an effort to stay in the community that their children had grown up in. But still, her little ones missed their home.
“We didn’t want to tell the kids at first [that the house was gone], not until we were sure,” says Annie. “They knew about the fire and why we couldn’t go outside … Our little one was just so scared. He kept crying for so long, asking to go home, and eventually we had to tell him that home was gone. He still thinks all clouds are smoke and whenever it’s overcast he says ‘No, fire! It’s too dangerous!’ But he is healing now.”
This heartbreak is what eventually prompted the Olceses to enter the Big Gift, Tiny House contest, launched by the Freeform channel as a way to help those who’ve been displaced from their homes this year. Though they figured the odds were slim, they heard the winning family would get a custom-designed and fully furnished home from New Frontier Tiny Houses, and decided to take a chance.
Applicants were asked to submit a photo via the Freeform website, share their story, and explain why they needed a new house. And as luck would have it, out of the 1,600 applications Freeform received, the Olceses were named the winners earlier this month.
“We honestly never thought we would win,” Annie tells Babble. “It’s been a rough year for us, yes, but it has been for so many people. I guess something about our story really struck the Freeform team.”
It certainly did. On December 20, the Freeform team showed up at the front door of the Olcese’s RV, along with a big sign to surprise the family.
“We were shocked, amazed, and I was in tears,” Annie says of the moment she found out about her family’s new home.
While they still don’t know when they’ll officially be moving into their tiny house (they have to figure out where to put it first!), the family is already daydreaming about their new life.
“I’m excited for a washing machine, and my husband is very excited to have a little more security in a very turbulent phase of our lives,” says Annie.
We couldn’t be happier that this sweet family will soon get a fresh start in a home they so deserve. And to the many other families who lost their homes this year and are still struggling to pick up the pieces, Annie has a few words of encouragement: “Hold on to hope,” she urges. “Don’t let yourself be devastated. Our house, our neighborhood is devastated, but we are not because to be devastated is to be without hope, and our hope is something so much larger than a house.”