A Little Help From Friends
An Inspirational Response to a Tragic Fire
By Clark Kingsbury
The crowd is impossibly cool. A colourful mix of fashionable young men and women are packed into a tiny, three-storey house on Bathurst Street, just north of Dundas Street West, in downtown Toronto. The cover is $20 for all you can drink beer, dirt cheap shots, and a revolving door of live bands and DJs playing from a small homemade stage in the house’s living area. There’s only one bathroom, so many of the young men are darting in and out of the house to relieve themselves. It is hot, almost unbearably cramped, and incredibly festive. People are laughing, hugging one another, and dancing with smiles on their faces. Upstairs, in the house’s tiny, Christmas-light adorned attic, the party’s attendees are taking turns being filmed offering messages of support, love, and condolence to the event’s absent star: Prince Amponsah.
At the time of the party, Prince, 27, was confined to a bed at Sunnybrook Hospital following a tragic fire that ripped through his Queen Street West apartment early on the morning of November 12th, 2012. Not only had he lost all of his belongings in the blaze, but he suffered third degree burns to over 60% of his body and lost his left hand and much of his right arm to infection. Had it not been for the heroic efforts of his roommates Brent Robinson, who alerted the building upon waking up to the fire, and Pawel Tosiek, who rushed back into the apartment to find Prince after originally escaping unharmed, he would certainly have perished.
In addition to pursuing a career as a stage actor, Prince worked in retail to pay the bills and help support his mother and extended family. Like many young artists in Toronto, money was never in abundance, and with all of his possessions destroyed, and with no money incoming, Prince’s situation appeared dire.
As news of the fire spread to Prince’s friends, they jumped immediately to his aide. Ruth Tecle, a former co-worker turned friend, was amongst the first to begin organizing. “I think my role in the beginning was to just get the ball rolling, and getting people to move from mourning or hopelessness to action,” she said. “Everyone wanted to do something, but didn’t know how to help.”
Tecle, along with Robinson, Tosiek, and a brigade of friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, dove headfirst into the project. First, they set up a page on Indiegogo, an international crowd funding and fundraising site that helps clients raise money for all sorts of causes. The group filmed a short video explaining Prince’s situation and posted it to Youtube, asking for small donations in order to help Prince piece his life back together. They set their initial fundraising goal at $5000 within five months: enough, they hoped, to help him piece his life back together upon eventually exiting the hospital and to ease the financial strain on his family.
Once the web campaign had been put together, fundraiser parties were organized: first, the house party on Bathurst Street, and then, a week later, a party at venerable Toronto venue Sneaky Dee’s. Between these two fundraisers alone, Prince’s friends raised $5700—an impressive amount which still paled in comparison to the online contributions. “I honestly thought the fundraisers would bring out more money at first,” said Tecle, “but after day one, it became clear that Indiegogo was touching all the people that Prince had touched and continued to touch.” It took less than 24 hours for the original goal of $5000 to be exceeded.
As money continued to pour in, it became clear that this was not to be a simple tale of tragedy and loss. By early January, the total amount of money raised was hovering around $30,000. Suddenly, the story was about the uniting of a community, about energetic and committed friendship, and about unwavering selflessness—particularly the selflessness of Prince’s roommates, Brent and Pawel, who have insisted that all funds go to Prince—just as much it was about tragedy besetting an undeserving young man.
After three weeks in a medically induced coma, Prince’s condition stabilized, and he was woken in early December. He has been taken off a respirator, is breathing on his own, and has largely regained his ability to speak. He can move very little, has consistently blurred vision, and is heavily medicated. At times, his awareness of his surroundings becomes hazy and skewed. His face, despite being less severely burned than most of the rest of his body, was still badly marked by the fire; once dark skin has been burned grey, white, and red. However, his handsome features are still very much intact, his hearing is sharp, and his voice, though weak, is instantly recognizable. His friends have been visiting him regularly, bringing CDs, cards, newspaper articles, gossip, and updates on the events surrounding his tragedy.
When Ruth Tecle visits him on January 6th, 2013, the conversation is generally light. She updates him on Chris Brown and Rihanna’s reunion (“Oh come on!” he says), and on Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy with Kanye West’s child (“You’re joking”). He politely requests some books and plays on tape, as he is still incapable of reading, and expresses wonder at the NHL lockout’s sudden end. The topic of the fire comes up briefly but is overshadowed by Prince’s heartfelt appreciation for his friends’ fundraising efforts and his stunning optimism. “I’ve got to keep positive,” he says. “At this point, what else can I do?”
After about a half hour of the visit, Prince seems to be tiring, sometimes falling out of the conversation under the weight of his medication. Tecle decides to leave, as she is only the first of many visitors expected for Prince that day. She says goodbye, promises to be back soon, and lets him know she loves him. It will be months before he can leave the hospital, and several more months after that of rehabilitation. He will need to learn a new way of life: how to live with a disability, how to function with prosthetic limbs, how to move on. But while all of this will be difficult, he can be assured of one thing: he won’t be doing it alone.
Go here to learn more about the fundraising campaign and to donate: www.indiegogo.com/princeamponsah