AKRON, Ohio — When Kim Canterbury began working as a substitute special education teacher in the summer of 2016 at Hyre Community Learning Center, she didn’t realize she’d end up teaching the class the entire year.

But even less expected was that she would end up taking one of her four students into her home as one of her own.

Yet, when she found out her 12-year-old student, Shaniya Simpson, was the sole survivor of a house fire that took the rest of her family’s lives that December, Canterbury hardly gave any thought to it — she just knew it was something that needed to be done.

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“It was always the right thing to do. There was never any doubt or question,” Canterbury said as she sat in the living room of her home in Cuyahoga Falls — the home that Shaniya, now 13, lives in as well.

After losing her family and narrowly escaping death herself, Shaniya is adjusting to life with a new family and finding strength in spite of her tragic past.

Tragedy strikes

In December of 2016, Vicki Wallis had just arrived in Arizona after driving two days from Ohio when she learned that her only child, Shirley Wallis, had perished in a fire in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The other victims were Shirley Wallis’s partner, Omar Riley, and their two children, 9-year-old Aniyla Riley and 8-year-old Shanice Riley.

The only survivors were Jennifer Grubbs, a family friend who lived in the house, and Vicki Wallis’ granddaughter Shaniya, who was pulled unconscious from her smoky bedroom window and resuscitated by emergency responders.

It was later determined that the fire had been caused by unattended cooking, and the three-story rental home had no working smoke detectors. The landlord, Joni Laidig, was sued for wrongful death in a lawsuit that was settled in September of last year for $360,000. A personal injury/product liability lawsuit is still pending in federal court in Akron against General Electric, the manufacturer of the stove in the family’s home.

After an agonizing two-day drive back, Vicki Wallis rushed to the hospital where Shaniya was being treated for a small burn on her thigh and smoke inhalation. There, she was met by family members, Shaniya’s principals and Canterbury.

Canterbury, who had been a special education teacher for more than 20 years, was hired at Hyre that year as a substitute, but plans changed and she wound up teaching the class permanently. Shaniya, who has autism and some developmental delays, had been Canterbury’s student for less than three months prior to the fire.

As Canterbury began talking with Shaniya’s family, it grew clear that no one would be able to take Shaniya in.

So Canterbury stepped up.

“Our doors are open,” Canterbury told the family.

New family

Shaniya was in the hospital for a week. By Christmas, she was in a new home with the Kim and Marc Canterbury and their two young daughters 5-year-old Abby and 8-year-old Emma.

“I told her, ‘Look, this is your house now.’ And from that moment on, it’s been her house,” said Marc, recalling the first day Shaniya moved in. “I think she adjusted fast and furious. I think part of it is that she came from two sisters, and now she has two small children there again. She found her pace.”

Shaniya and Kim both returned to school after that holiday break, developing a new level of relationship beyond that of a student and a teacher.

Kim quickly got to work spreading fire safety awareness at Hyre — a cause she still feels strongly about today, especially because local residents can get smoke detectors for free.

As the months progressed, Kim said Shaniya grew more comfortable in the home and confident in her opinions. Her fear of animals was broken by the family’s massive Great Dane, who Shaniya now feeds daily, and the family began to involve her in extracurricular activities and sports to gauge her interests.

“I like being at my teacher’s house,” Shaniya said.

The Canterburys were granted official guardianship of Shaniya in July.

“There were a lot of things that fell into place for such a huge blessing to have happened,” Kim said. “I feel like I now know her like she’s my own child.”

Adjusting

The Canterburys and Shaniya’s grandma, Vicki Wallis, said they haven’t noticed a negative change in Shaniya, who is still as sweet and soft-spoken as she was before the fire.

They attribute much of her resiliency to her autism.

Even after a burnt meal sent smoke detectors blaring and filled the Canterburys’ home with smoke one day, the smoke didn’t trigger a reaction in Shaniya — she was more disturbed by the loud noise.

“Her disability is like a blessing in disguise,” Kim said.

There are little things that remind her of those she lost, though.

One day, when Kim was rinsing Shaniya’s hair, she flipped over her head and wrapped it in a towel. Shaniya told Canterbury that her mom used to do the same thing for her.

And certain places, like the Cedar Point amusement park and a restaurant called Rockne’s, remind Shaniya of the fun she used to have with her little sisters.

Though they still remain in her heart, Shaniya has created room for her new little sisters as well. The three laugh and joke just like sisters, Kim said, and even tease one another like sisters, too.

“She’s funny and nice,” Emma said about Shaniya. “I think she’s the kindest person I ever met.”

Since the Canterburys assumed guardianship of Shaniya, Wallis has had regular contact with the family as well.

“Within a three-year span I lost my mother, my husband, my daughter, my grandchildren, my aunts and my uncles … but she took me in as family,” Wallis said, gesturing to Kim. “I guess I come as a package deal with Shaniya.”

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Wallis sat visiting with the Canterburys in their home.

They chatted about Shaniya’s growth since her time in the hospital not so long ago.

“(Shaniya) is a good kid all around. Your daughter did an amazing job with her,” Kim told Wallis.

“Yes she did,” Wallis said. “I’m very proud of her … And I’m very proud of what (Shaniya) went through. To go through an ordeal like we did, it brought us together, too.”

Meeting heroes

In August, Shaniya attended the Aluminum Cans for Burned Children Camp, hosted by Akron Children’s Hospital, along with 12 other child burn survivors.

It’s something she’d looked forward to all summer, Kim said. But the highlight of the camp, Fire Truck Day, at Portage Lakes State Park brought a surprise.

Three emergency responders who rescued Shaniya from the fire greeted her when she arrived.

Shaniya hugged Kim, who was near tears at the sight of them, and then they hugged each of the responders: Lt. Mark Pazdernik, who pulled Shaniya out of the house, along with paramedics Lukas Burns and Aaron Byard.

“Thank you for saving my life from the fire,” Shaniya told them.

Many of the kids there, including Shaniya, spent a majority of their time playing in the mounds of foam produced by the fire department’s foam machine.

As the foam bloomed into a cloud on earth, Shaniya stood in the middle while Emma and Abby ran around her. From the side, Kim waved to Shaniya, and she beamed a radiant smile back — and in that moment, the only reminder of Shaniya’s tragic past was the small scar left from the burn on her thigh.

© 2018 Akron Beacon Journal
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