After a devastating fire shut down Albany's Damien Center last week, the charitable organization is slowly fighting back. YNN's Geoff Redick took a tour of the damaged Center earlier Monday to see how they're recovering.
ALBANY, N.Y. -- It's not easy for Perry Junjulas to walk into the Damien Center on Albany's South Lake Avenue now, even though he's done it nearly every day for the past 15 years.
"I've got to mentally prepare myself. It's just weird to go through the door like this now," says Junjulas, as he cracks open the padlock on the boarded up door. More boards cover the surrounding windows.
"I knew every inch of this place. Now it's just amazing to see the light fixtures, everything gone," he said.
A fast moving fire ripped through the Damien Center on Thursday, August 29th. While the outside remained nearly unscathed, the blaze only needed a few hours to decimate the entire interior. A mangled metal television mount remains on the wall, but the rest of the device has melted to the floor. Soap dispensers and ceiling fans are also melted nearly beyond recognition. And every painting and picture inside the re-purposed house is blackened, except for one.
"Somehow this picture of Father Damien, his face is just sort of there," Junjulas points out. The portrait of the saint is leaning and the glass is cracked, but the likeness of the face appears nearly untouched. "When I saw this, it was something that just kind of spoke to me. Of all the things that didn't get burned."
The Damien Center exists as a gathering place for those suffering from HIV or AIDS and their families. Staff and volunteers offer comfort and services to those people. Within that description, the facility has functioned as a makeshift community kitchen, bedroom, hospice care center and funeral home during its life.
The 15 year mortgage on the South Lake Avenue headquarters was paid off only eight months ago and now Junjulas must consider whether to strip out the interior and completely rebuild or abandon the structure and move into a new space elsewhere. The Center is currently operating out of the nearby First Lutheran Church on a temporary basis.
"A lot of this is, I think, the way some people feel when they're first diagnosed (with HIV)," Junjulas comments to a reporter with a similar observation. "It's this feeling of dirtiness. And I think a lot of what the Damien Center did is to help people realize they could have life again."
In that way, too, the Damien Center will be like the people it has served. Junjulas is vowing to re-open the center, even though he never thought he'd work at it for 15 years. But he's unsure how that will happen. Others are more certain.
"I think we can put it back together, as long as the structure is good," said Albert Allen.
Allen is an HIV sufferer and longtime volunteer with the Damien Center.
"It's been like a home to me. It's been like a home to a lot of people around here. We need a place and I think it would definitely be worth it," Allen said.
On this day, Allen is continuing to volunteer by flipping burgers on a grill. A small contingent of volunteers and clients gathers at the nearby First Lutheran Church for what was a planned Labor Day barbecue.
"We're serving hamburgers and hot dogs. That was the one easy thing we could put together," Junjulas chuckles as he joins the group. "We are still here for people. We're trying to figure out how to move forward. But the one constant I've learned about the Damien Center is that it's about community. It's about people being together."
The Damien Center has a week-long agreement with the First Lutheran Church and will re-evaluate at the end of the week. It is expected to be at least six months before there is a permanent home for the Center on South Lake Avenue or elsewhere.
For more information, call the Damien Center's hotline at (518) 449-7119, or visit the website at www.albanydamiencenter.org.