As word spread that Building Blocks Toy Store (3306 N. Lincoln Ave.) had flooded with four inches of water from an August deluge, Lakeview residents and neighboring businesses quickly took to Facebook to rally around the shop’s owner Katherine McHenry, seen a mentor and guide in the community.
On Aug. 3, McHenry was spending some quality time away from the store with her two children when she received a call saying three to four inches of water had backed up from a drain into Building Blocks. She settled her kids at home and then headed to the store, where she found that water had damaged her inventory, and knocked out the phone lines and electricity.
“When I first heard, I panicked,” McHenry said. “I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do. I freaked out.”
The store closed for a half day as McHenry and her staff assessed the damage. There was water everywhere, and a lot of McHenry’s product was damaged.
While McHenry was still in a daze from the flood, store manager Cassandra Forcier suggested holding a sale for items that might still be salvageable but had damaged boxes or packaging. A simple Facebook post advertising the sale and the reason for it soon went viral, garnering McHenry support from the neighborhood and business community.
“A simple post on Facebook and it saved all that dumpster space,” she said. “We also got a bit of cash for the product that we would have had to throw away.”
News of the flood eventually reached Wendy Widom, who runs the website Families in the Loop and was acquainted with McHenry through the Neighborhood Parents Network. “When I found out about the flooding, I posted to our Facebook group to see what we can do,” Widom said. “I did this because of her example as a leader. Katherine is a mentor, a guide and a fearless and generous leader.”
After speaking with McHenry and discovering she needed help meeting payroll, Widom decided to move forward with an online fundraising effort. Through posts on Facebook and other social media, Widom was able to raise more than $5,000 for Building Blocks.
The outpouring of support touched and honored McHenry, but also left her feeling a bit uncomfortable. “It was like It’s A Wonderful Life,” she said. “It was extremely difficult to take the help. I was born in another country [Vietnam]. My parents worked hard, and I’m a for-profit business. I didn’t want people to help just because I’m a woman-owned business or a small business.”
Talking to McHenry, the subject of community invariably pops up in conversation. Her personal philosophy stresses the importance of helping others, be it business owners, the community or customers. She estimates that she donates around $20,000 to schools and other charities throughout the year, viewing her store not only as a business, but as an integral part of the neighborhood.
Widom says it’s hard for McHenry to be on the other side of such generosity. “She is such a giver,” Widom said. “She is humble. It shows that in a second you can go from benefactor to recipient.”
For the past 13 out of 16 years, McHenry has run Building Blocks out of its current location. During this time, she’s promoted her philosophy of community to customers and other business owners, principally through Moms in Business. This group, which as part of the Neighborhood Parents Network, connects business owners in the spirit of sharing knowledge or cross promoting their goods and services.
The role Facebook played in Building Blocks’ fundraising efforts only confirmed for McHenry the value of creating community through social media as well as traditional outlets. “This experience actually confirmed what I say for the Moms in Business group,” she said. “How can I help create synergy? What can we do together to create a community. I learned that philosophy and have been a champion of it because it is true.”
Nearly a month after the initial flood McHenry suffered another setback. Heavy rains dumped another 200 gallons of water into the store, causing more monetary loss. At this point, it’s unclear if the flooding is a city issue or if the plumbing serving the building is at fault. Either way, the landlord is planning to rip up the sidewalk outside the shop to get a better look at any potential blockage, something McHenry hoped could be put off until the spring. “Unfortunately, I think this will hurt what is my busiest time of the year,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ll get long-term resolution from this.”
Even with all of these problems, McHenry is planning the store’s 13th anniversary celebration, Oct. 19-21, which will include activities and sales. “We have inventory on the shelves,” she said. “It’s back to fun as usual.”