Marine Drive fire victims: We know we’re not alone

Dos Santos family struggles to recover after gelateria destroyed last month.

Jose and Eliete Dos Santos

Jose and Eliete Dos Santos

It’s been a long three weeks for Jose and Eliete Dos Santos.

The South Surrey couple watched in despair last month as a large fire on White Rock’s West Beach destroyed the building that housed their family business, Gelateria Italia & Coffee Shop.

Returning this week to the vacant, fenced-off site where their shop used to be, the Dos Santoses discuss the stress of losing their family’s livelihood and what they plan to do next.

No more than a few minutes pass before the conversation is interrupted by passersby who recognize the husband and wife.

“We are so worried about you!” says one woman, as she throws her arms around Eliete in a warm embrace.

A few minutes later, another group walks by and more hugs are shared.

“We’ve missed you,” says a woman out for a walk on the promenade.

The interruptions are a testament to the Marine Drive gelato shop’s popularity and how much its presence is missed by locals.

Originally opened in 1995, the business was bought by the Dos Santoses in 2005 after they moved from Venezuela to escape crime and political unrest and to provide a better future for their children.

It was a struggle for the first few years, Jose says, noting the seasonal nature of a beach-front gelato business made for some tough winters. Before long, however, the gelateria and coffee shop was thriving, bringing in customers from all over the Lower Mainland, many of whom got to know the Dos Santos family, including the couple’s 22-year-old son, Daniel, and 17-year-old daughter, Valeria.

“The people who come to see us, they’re not customers. They’re friends, they’re family,” says Jose.

In the early hours of March 10, the Dos Santoses lost a decade worth of hard work when a fire broke out on the second floor of the building, in a vacant suite undergoing renovations. According to fire officials, a chemical reaction from hardwood refinishing started the blaze, which took several hours to extinguish.

Though the fire was contained to the building’s upper floor, the damage was catastrophic; the historic building – built in the early 1920s and, over the years, serving as a Masonic Lodge, a dance hall and even an acting studio – was deemed unsafe and was demolished later that day.

Aside from the financial burden – the business provided the sole income for the entire family – the weeks since the fire have been filled with the stresses of dealing with insurance claims and trying to decide what to do next.

While many questions remain as to the fate of their gelato business, one thing is certain: the family wants to stay in the area.

“White Rock is such a beautiful place, we love this community,” Jose says. “There are so many people trying to keep us in White Rock, that’s why we want to stay here.”

Last week, the family met with White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin, who offered to help them find a temporary location so they can open in time for the summer.

“I suggested to them that the museum is looking for ways to make extra money, and had talked about setting up a coffee bar between the museum and the waterfront,” Baldwin told Peace Arch News Tuesday. “So we’re trying to help connect them with the museum. If it works, great. If not, well, at least we will have tried.”

In an effort to ease the financial strain for the Dos Santoses, a website has been set up by a family friend to raise money to help get the family back on their feet.

The fundraiser was launched by Arnaldo Dos Santos (no relation), who says he was devastated to learn of the fire and wanted to help in any way he could.

“They treat everybody as their family, no matter how busy they were at the store,” he says. “I just wanted to do as much as I can within my reach to help them.”

The fundraiser is posted online at www.gofundme.com/qfuaaeec

While Jose and Eliete know their family has a long road ahead of them, they say they’re optimistic about getting back to business in time for summer.

“It’s been hard for us,” says Eliete.

“But at the same time we know that we have the support of our customers and we know that we’re not alone.”

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