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ND, MN communities rally around fire victims

GRAFTON, N.D. -- Nate Peroni takes his little brother with him wherever he goes.

He wears a tiny urn around his neck with ashes from his 4-year-old brother Mathew Milhem, who died April 20 in a house fire 3 miles north of Stephen, Minn.

It's a loss that Nate, his parents, David and Barbara Field, and the rest of the family will never forget.

But it could have been worse. Nate, the Fields' 14-year-old son, raced back into the burning house to rescue his 5-year-old brother, Logan Milhem, before the blaze enveloped the family home.

The family said the outpouring of kindness and generosity by residents of nearby communities has not only given the family love and comfort, but food, clothing and a home in Grafton to start the healing process together.

"It's going to be tough to leave because so much love has gone into this house," Barb Field said. "I just want people to know how heartfelt it was to us and how much it meant to our family."

The entire family wears similar necklaces in memory of Mathew -- some pendants with his picture and others, like Nate's, with a small bit of his ashes.

"I keep a little of Mathew with me all the time," said Peroni, his hands still bandaged from injuries suffered in the fire.

The house the Field family now lives in sits on land purchased by the Grafton Department of Parks and Recreation a few years ago.

Bill Dahl, director of Grafton Parks and Recreation, recently received a phone call from Andrew Moe, a former park board president.

Moe was familiar with the house and asked whether it might be available for the Fields, who both work in Grafton. Barbara opened North Country Gifts & Goodies earlier this year, and David works at Marvin Windows.

Dahl talked to Kerry Demars, the current president of the park board, and the two determined the house would probably work, but no one had lived in it for more than two years.

"He said, 'Let's make a few calls,' " Dahl said. "The community support was awesome."

Dahl said Wayne's Heating & Cooling repaired the furnace and donated a fridge. Kutz & O'Brien, a local plumbing company, connected the water heater and updated the plumbing.

The State Developmental Center discharged it's "community helpers," a group of 15 people who went to work cleaning the home.

Other community members donated a washer and dryer set, furniture and smoke detectors. The closets in the bedrooms are packed with boxes full of donated clothes, blankets and other amenities.

"It looks like someone has been living here forever," Barb Field said. "The thing that is ironic, this is like the perfect place. Mathew would have loved it -- a park in the backyard."

The bathroom is stocked with toiletries, including enough toothpaste for the Fields and the three boys living there for well more than a year.

Barb, who has done charity work with the United Way, said any items the family doesn't use would be donated back to people who needed them.

When the Fields arrived for their first night in the house, longtime friend Terry Brown met them at the door.

"There isn't anything I wouldn't do for this family," Brown said.

The Minnesota and North Dakota communities where the Fields grew up, worked and raised their family have leaped into action since the tragedy.

David said Marvin Windows raised more than $4,000 with a fundraiser. The American Legion in Stephen sponsored a steak fry fundraiser. Barb said her cousins near Crookston, Minn., are putting on a dodge ball fundraiser. A number of area banks are donation centers for those who have given both money and goods.

David Fields said his friends and co-workers have been with him since the beginning, driving to the fire and taking the family to Regents Hospital in St. Paul, where Nate and Logan saw specialists for the burns suffered in the fire.

Barb said the family has eight children in all, including Mathew. One son, 16-year-old David Peroni, wasn't injured in the fire.

The Fields were married last summer, but they've known each other for about 30 years, since David was 15 and Barb was 13.

The two, described as childhood sweethearts by Barb Field, grew up just miles apart with Barb attending school in Warren, Minn., and David going to classes in Stephen.

Their relationship was put on hold temporarily when Barb accumulated a $600 phone bill calling David and she was forbidden from contacting him.

After high school, they grew apart until a few years ago when Barb was working at a private investigator service in Colorado. In one of her cases, she came across a person with the last name Field, which made her think of David.

She cringes when she admits she did a background check on him to get his personal information before calling him.

The two hit it off and started talking more regularly and soon, David moved to Colorado.

They'd moved back to Minnesota and had been living in the house near Stephen, which had been in David's family for 100 years, for less than a year.

Barb Field said a trip to the bank for Mathew wasn't complete without a sucker, and one for his brother, Logan, too.

"He was a sharer," she said. "He had to have one for everyone else."

At Mathew's funeral, friends and family released hundreds of balloons in his memory.

They weren't alone.

Barb Field said friends from Mexico, Paraguay, the Netherlands, Jordan, Turkey and Sweden took part in the ceremony, releasing balloons in honor of Mathew from their respective countries.

"Flowers are beautiful, but Mathew would have wanted balloons," she said, adding he liked to play with them every time he'd be in her store.

Much of the support came after Barb Field posted some memories and an emotional dream she had about Mathew on her Facebook page. She thought only a few friends could see it, but it was available for anyone to view.

The entire family also has "Mathew Bears," stuffed animals with their names written on them. The toys were a favorite of Mathew's.

They family doesn't plan on living in the Grafton home for too long and are still deciding on where they will move once they are ready.

"It doesn't matter where we end up, as long as we're all together," Barb Field said.