On the final Sunday night of April, a week after Easter with the high school baseball season about a month old, Timber Creek High School junior Jon Martinez was sitting on his bed doing homework.
It was around 5:30 p.m. Ernesto Martinez, his father, had just returned home from his second job, part-time work at Lowe’s.
Martinez’s wife, Jennifer Brady, had put some laundry down to talk to one of her daughter’s friends, who stopped by to see how Brady’s latest battle with cancer was going.
Jon Martinez smelled something. Then he saw some smoke coming through the vent. His father’s cousin, who lives behind the family in the Brittany Woods neighborhood of Sicklerville, was the first to see the fire.
“Yo!” he yelled toward Ernesto and Jennifer, who were outside enjoying the spring weather. “There are flames coming out of your window!”
As his father sprinted into the house and up the stairs, Jon Martinez walked out of his room.
“I couldn’t even see to my dad’s end of the hallway,” Jon Martinez said. “It was just covered in smoke.”
Five days later, Martinez, his father, and his stepmom attempted to go about their business as if life was normal. Baseball is everything to the Chargers second baseman and Timber Creek had a conference game with Cherry Hill East High School.
But as Jon Martinez went to work on the diamond – starting a double play with a shovel pass to his shortstop, sliding into first base to try to beat out an infield grounder, camping under a pop up high in the crystal blue sky – his father and step mom watched from the third base side of Timber Creek’s field, and even if life looked normal, it was far from it.
The family of five – Martinez, Brady, Jon Martinez, and Brady’s two teenage daughters – lost everything when their home caught fire. With the windows open and a candle lit, a strong wind unfurled a curtain from behind a panel and caught fire, along with the laundry Brady had just finished folding.
“When I ran upstairs, I saw my entire hamper on fire,” she said. “By the time we went downstairs to get the fire extinguisher and went back up, it was just so filled with smoke. It was so overwhelming we couldn’t get back up there.”
Brady, who lost her parents five years ago and had all of her family photos in the attic, filled up as she replayed the evening. Ernesto Martinez showed the bite mark on his bicep where his wife left her mark: he kept her from going back into the house when it became too dangerous.
“It was seeing everything go up in flames, my whole entire life,” Brady said. “I was just trying to do whatever I could.”
They were able to get the family dog, Drako, during the fire and recovered a couple, small framed photos from downstairs a couple days later. But nothing else.
“Everything I ever owned was in that house,” Brady said.
“We came out of the house with no shoes, nothing,” Ernesto Martinez.
But then, in the first 90 minutes or so after the fire and then in the week that followed on the baseball fields throughout South Jersey, the community responded.
While he was sitting in an ambulance outside the house being treated for possible CO2 inhalation, Jon Martinez saw his Timber Creek teammates through the window. “That meant a lot,” he said through bloodshot eyes.
The parents of one teammate volunteered to take John and his sisters, fellow Timber Creek students Emily and Leah Ramos, into their homes until the family is settled.
Throughout the week, in games against Bishop Eustace and Cherry Hill East, opposition teams have passed along money to donate to the family. A GoFundMe page was also set up and moved past the halfway mark of its $8,000 goal just four days into the campaign.
Tragedy struck Martinez’s family and the South Jersey baseball community responded.
“It’s been incredible, it really has, it’s been eye-opening,” Timber Creek baseball coach John Kates said. “I’ve had a lot of guys reach out and I know more is coming. I said to (Bishop Eustace coach) Sam (Tropiano), we go at it on the field but it’s times like this that really shows we’re one big family and community.”
The best word Ernesto Martinez could come up with was “overwhelming.” The Timber Creek parents who volunteered to watch his children while he and his wife stay with his sister in Camden. The families from other teams reaching out asking how they can help. Everyone, everywhere.
“They’re the reason we’re keeping it together,” Martinez said.
“This community,” Brady said. “Our kids have amazing friends. We have always loved these kids and their parents are absolutely phenomenal.”
The response both within Sicklerville and among fellow high school baseball and Little League teams has been nothing short of inspiring. But the tragedy of losing a home and figuring out how and where to start a new one remains.
And, unfortunately, it’s not an entirely new experience for Jon Martinez.
Timber Creek High School is the fourth high school Martinez has attended in 2 ½ years. He grew up in Camden and started ninth grade at Camden High before moving with his mom to Florida.
Not long after Martinez arrived in Ft. Myers, in late summer of 2017, Hurricane Irma hit. He was safe with his mom at his aunt’s house during the storm, but when they returned to their house …
“It was pretty bad,” the 16-year-old Martinez said. “The inside of our ceiling in the living room was collapsed.”
A few months later, Martinez was back in New Jersey and enrolling in another new high school. He’s been at Timber Creek since the middle of last school year.
As if it’s not enough moving around as a teenager, having to constantly make new friends and adjust to new environments while dealing with the daily ordeals of being a teenager, Martinez has had to watch his stepmom fight pancreatic cancer and has lost his family home twice in the span of 20 months.
“He’s a very quiet kid, stoic,” Kates said. “But the strength that he’s shown, especially at his age, to go through this a second time, it’s just incredible. I’m 34, I don’t know how I’d handle it let alone a 16-year-old kid. It just shows his character, his upbringing. And the guys have done a great job rallying around him.”
“Growing up, living in Camden is kind of rough,” Martinez said. “We’re used to seeing bad stuff happen around us, it was always a negative environment around us. But to see (this) happen to us, it really has affected us emotionally. It’s kind of devastating.”
But, like his coach, his father and stepmom, Jon Martinez is grateful for the help from friends and the kindness of strangers.
“It means a lot,” he said. “I don’t really put myself out for publicity, so seeing all of these other people, these other teams that don’t know me, supporting (us), it’s a really good thing.”
The task of putting a home back together won’t happen overnight. Martinez and his family will endure, however. Because the true definition of a home isn’t a physical place, but, instead, where you can find family.
For all Martinez has had to go through, he knows he has friends he calls brothers in his dugout and a baseball family at large throughout greater South Jersey.
“There are always going to be obstacles, you know?” he said, looking out toward the neatly-manicured field at Timber Creek. “Being here is a way to cope with it. Once (the fire) happened, all I was thinking about was playing our next game.”
How to help: contact Timber Creek coach Jon Kates at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the GoFundMe page.