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After Sheletta Brundidge lost five of her family members to carbon monoxide poisoning, she knew she never wanted anyone to feel the pain she and her relatives felt — so she turned her tragedy into action.
Brundidge, 49, wasted no time in spreading awareness of the deadly gas, and has so far donated dozens of carbon monoxide detectors to those in need to ensure no one else has to suffer loss like hers.
“I was praying, and I said, ‘I need to grieve for my aunt, my cousins, my uncles,”‘ she tells PEOPLE. “And I heard a voice as clear as day say, ‘Don’t go down there and grieve for me, go down there and give.’ I knew she wanted me to do something.”
“She” was Rosalie Lewis, the 81-year-old sister of Brundidge’s father, who was living with her husband John, 84, daughter Kim Lewis Evans, 56, and son-in-law Chris Evans, 61, when Hurricane Laura hit their home in Lake Charles, Louisiana in September.
The family — along with Rosalie’s brother Clyde Handy, 72 — was sleeping with a generator running in the open garage when the storm blew the garage door shut, sending toxic fumes seeping into the home.
All five were killed by the odorless, colorless gas, as they did not have a carbon monoxide detector to alert them to the danger.
“It’s a silent killer. People can see smoke coming from your house, and they can see flames shooting from your roof, and try to get in there and get you,” Brundidge, a radio personality based in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, says. “But carbon monoxide… You don’t see nothing, you don’t smell nothing, you don’t feel nothing. You’re just dead.”
Brundidge says Rosalie — whom she considered a mentor and role model — was a “very no nonsense, tough as nails” woman who was the first Black female supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service in Louisiana.
“She was a mother, a grandmother, a community leader, and a community servant,” Brundidge says. “She was a trailblazer… She was the first woman I saw who was a boss.”
She had five children with her husband Charles, a longtime truck driver for Kroger grocery stores, including Kim, who was also a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service.
Brundidge says her cousin Kim took on female mentees to help get them into leadership roles, and was a community activist — as well as a “Mardi Gras queen.” Her husband Chris was an entrepreneur who also loved mentoring young people, and who was well-known for his “legendary” Super Bowl parties.
Clyde, meanwhile, was also a post office supervisor, and Brundidge remembers her uncle as someone with a “great sense of compassion” who was “always the first to give.” He was staying with his relatives that fateful night after he lost power and the storm tore a hole through his roof.
Brundidge knew almost immediately that she had to channel her grief into something good, so she began to give back through books. As a mother to four kids — three of whom have autism — she’s been spreading awareness with her children’s book Cameron Goes to School — so she loaded up her family RV with 2,000 copies and drove down to Louisiana to distribute them to children who’d lost everything.
But upon returning to Minnesota, Brundidge, who also hosts the Sheletta Makes Me Laugh podcasting platform, realized her mission wasn’t done quite yet.
After reading a news report about two people in Chicago who’d nearly died from carbon monoxide poisoning in October, Brundidge learned from the city’s fire department that an elderly woman had recently called in looking for a detector, as she couldn’t afford one, but the city had none to give.
“I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,'” Brundidge recalls. “I said, ‘You know what? We’ll go and fix this.'”
She soon got in touch with the Minnesota State Fire Marshall’s Office, with whom she collaborated on a social media campaign to spread awareness on the importance of carbon monoxide detectors.
“It’s not something you can take back. You can’t say, ‘I wish I would’ve had it,'” she says. “It’s too late.”
Despite the campaign, the story of the woman in Chicago who couldn’t afford a detector lingered on her mind.
With Rosalie’s voice still in her head, Brundidge cold-called the company First Alert to ask for donations, and soon had a case of 50 sent to her free of charge, ready to be distributed to those in need.
“The first one that went out was to an elderly woman in Lakeville, Minnesota. Her son-in-law sent me an email,” she says. “I’ve been mailing them and people have been coming by the house and I take it outside. Some of the folks have been driving by, dropping them off on their porch.”
She adds: “Whatever I need to do to get these smoke detectors into folks’ homes, I’m willing to do, because I’m really serious about making sure that nobody has to go through what I went through.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has paused future plans to distribute even more detectors in other cities, including Lake Charles, Brundidge says the response has so far been overwhelming, and that people are “so grateful” to receive the help.
“One man said, ‘I’ve never asked for help before in my life for anything,’ but he said he saw the story and he looked around at his family and he realized if he couldn’t afford it, he needed to go ahead and ask for a free one,” she says. “He realized, ‘Yep, I need this. This is important. I don’t want anything to happen to my family like what happened to Sheletta’s family.'”
“First Alert applauds Sheletta Brundidge’s efforts to help raise awareness and educate others about the dangers of carbon monoxide,” Wey said. “She has seen first-hand how devastating the effects of this poisonous gas can be, and we are glad to play a part in her efforts to distribute carbon monoxide alarms to those in need, helping others to protect what matters most.”
Though her mission to outfit every home in need with a carbon monoxide detector has only just begun, Brundidge says she hopes that her beloved Aunt Rosa is looking down with a smile.
“I’m doing this with my children. I’m making sure that they are there, and they are seeing this, that they are aware of what’s going on because I want to pass on that legacy of giving that my aunt gave me,” she says. “I can try my best to make her proud and honor her legacy.”