EAST NAPLES — Investigators are trying to determine who started an early-morning fire that gutted a charitable thrift shop in East Naples on Monday.
Firefighters responded to the 5 a.m. blaze at a one-story shopping plaza at 2275 U.S. 41 E. The fire started in the headquarters of The Last Connection, a small charitable organization dedicated to helping addicts.
The organization runs the thrift shop to raise money.
“The state fire marshal and our fire prevention bureau concluded it was arson,” East Naples fire spokesman Greg Speers said. “They’re not saying what led them to come to that conclusion.”
All of the thrift store’s donated inventory was destroyed by smoke, Speers said. State Fire Marshal’s Office and Collier County Sheriff’s Office personnel are investigating the fire.
East Naples and North Naples firefighters responded to the blaze, as did Collier deputies. Firefighters were on scene in about six minutes, Speers said, entered the building through the front door, and extinguished the blaze in about 10 minutes.
Speers said the fire was easily contained because of the concrete walls at the plaza. However, smoke, fire and water damage was significant. Neighboring units had minor smoke and water damage, Speers said.
“It looks like I’m kind of in a pickle this morning,” said Joe Hudson, CEO of The Last Connection.
Hudson helped start the independent non-profit in 2009 to help people wanting to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. The Last Connection helps them find shelter or places them in detox facilities.
Selling donated furniture, electronics and other used items has been the primary source of funding for The Last Connection, but all of that is gone now.
Organizers are already looking for a new place to base the charity, Hudson said.
“Right now, our biggest need is people’s prayers,” he said.
A dozen or more people in recovery who have depended on The Last Connection for its services and support network mingled Monday outside the strip plaza, some in tears but others more resilient. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people in the 12-step recovery program regularly come for prayer and support.
“We just mainly provide a place for people to come and be safe,” said Hudson, a certified counselor.
Hudson said the nonprofit moved to the current site in September 2009 after operating in quarters off nearby Linwood Avenue.
“We are a hand up, not a hand out,” said Sammy V., who didn’t want to give his last name. “This is just a set back. This is not going to stop us.”
Lynzi Villanueva, 30, said The Last Connection helped her turn her life around after serving two years in prison for a crime to support her drug addition.
“I practically live at this place,” she said. “If it wasn’t for this place, I probably wouldn’t be alive today.”
Now Villanueva will graduate June 3 from the Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology. She is reunited with her two children and is getting married in a few weeks.
She said The Last Connection will be back.
“These people showed me how to live like a lady,” she said.
Staff writer Liz Freeman contributed to this story.
_Connect with Aaron Hale at /www.naplesnews.com/staff/aaron-hale