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Lining up to help Okie and Billie; Newfane's response after devastating fire is a tribute to Kneelands' lifelong generosity

Okie and Billie Kneeland are not the type of people who feel comfortable asking others for help.

But having spent their lives in the same place, helping others when they needed it and asking nothing in return, they shouldn't be surprised to know that people are lining up to return the favor.

An outpouring of community support is helping the Kneelands get back on their feet after their landmark barn was destroyed in a March 17 fire.

"They had the ultimate devastation," said Peter Robinson, a friend and fellow member of Ridgewood Bible Church. "It would be nice if the community could help them out the way they've helped everyone else out over the years."

Robinson and some other members of the church set up a Kneeland Benefit Fund, which is accepting donations through the Lockport and Niagara Falls branches of the Niagara County Federal Credit Union. As of last week, the fund contained $3,808, Robinson said.

Additionally, about a dozen or more Amish men from Orleans County are expected to visit this week to lead reconstruction efforts.

The fund's existence -- help from people they barely know, as well as the untabulated assistance brought directly to their home -- is rather embarrassing to the Kneelands, proud people in their late 60s who don't believe in taking handouts.

"They're the kind of people who wanted people to give without knowing who it was," said their daughter Jennifer Ragonese, one of three Kneeland children. "They've probably written 100 thank-yous."

"We did not encourage the fundraiser," Billie Kneeland said. "It certainly isn't anything we would have asked for. The Lord has provided so many people helping and giving gifts, so I guess I'm not going to tell them they can't."

Okie Kneeland worked at Taylor's Hardware in the hamlet of Ridgewood for more than 25 years, so he got to know most of the area's farmers, said one of the couple's two sons, Jeffrey Kneeland, who teaches and coaches the baseball team at Newfane High School.

The couple's other son, Steven, is a colonel in the Army. He is stationed in Maryland and is planning to retire soon.

The land on which the farm is located was the home of Okie Kneeland's great-grandfather. Billie Kneeland said she and her husband have been farming the land for the 46 years they have been married, right up until the morning of St. Patrick's Day.

The blaze erupted at about 6:20 a.m. Billie said her husband had looked out the window of the house about 10 minutes before and nothing was amiss at the 83-year-old barn.

"They have no idea [what caused the fire]," Billie Kneeland said. "The [insurance] adjuster was here, the [building] inspector was here. They have no idea."

Besides the animals, 1,200 to 1,500 bales of hay were destroyed by the fire. No farm machinery was lost; it was stored in a separate building nearby.

"It was charred under the machinery building, but it didn't catch on fire," Billie Kneeland said. "Both my house and the neighbor's house were right next to the barn. Thank goodness there was no wind that day, or one or both of us would have lost our homes."

The Kneelands raised beef cattle in recent years after having a dairy herd until 2004.

Okie got two cows and two calves out of the burning barn, but 13 calves were killed in the blaze. None was older than 6 months; seven were less than 3 months old.

"I knew they were in there and couldn't get out. They were in individual pens," Billie Kneeland said. "We had 24 other [animals] we had to let out. There must have been 75 to 100 people who came out of nowhere to help round them up."

"They don't even know some of the people who came to help them," Robinson said.

The surviving animals are being housed in a barn owned by a friend, Patrick Ginavan of Checkered Tavern Road.

"We go every day to feed them and check them out. He's a good friend to do that," Billie Kneeland said.

One cow injured while fleeing the flames had to be put down last week, as she was unable to stand up.

"She was running and rolled down the ditch bank," Billie said.

At first it was thought 14 animals had been killed. "We rounded them all up and took them to Pat's, and then this mother came back. She walked right into the fire [damage], where the building was, looking for her baby. That was tough," Billie Kneeland said.

That cow's calf had died in the fire.

Thanks to family and friends, the fire site was fully cleaned up in four days, said Jeffrey Kneeland. But his parents were not sure how they were going to start over. Their daughter said that there was insurance, although, as is frequently the case with small farmers, it was inadequate to pay all the reconstruction expenses.

Enter the many people who care about the Kneelands and were ready to step up, including their friends in the Amish community who had purchased lumber and hay from the Kneelands over the years.

Martin Yoder of Medina, one of the Amish men involved, said that offering to help is second nature in his community.

"That's part of our religion, our calling, to help people in need," he said. "The Lord Jesus gave his life on the cross for us people who need help, so we try to give help."

"That made Mom and Dad and myself cry," Jennifer Ragonese said.

The Kneelands will pay for the supplies the men will need. Some of the lumber will come from trees cut on the Kneelands' 250 acres. As many as 20 people are expected to be there to set the tresses and poles to build the barn.

"Dad's very similar [to the Amish] in his style of farming and their belief in God," Jennifer said. "They love giving, but it's been overwhelming to them to receive so much. Every time they'd open a letter, [Billie Kneeland] would cry."

"I was just grateful they considered helping us out," Okie Kneeland said. "It would be hard to get a gang of people who knew what they could be doing from our kind of society."

It isn't just the money and the physical labor being donated that has been an eye-opener for the Kneelands; it's also the general goodness of the people who otherwise might never have met them.

People in this part of Niagara County who might not know who the Kneelands probably are familiar with the the big red barn at Day and Ridge roads. It was something of a local landmark.

So much so that the barn was the subject of a watercolor painting done by local artist Kristine Gazzo. Billie's daughter-in-law, April Kneeland, saw it at the Market Street Art Center in Lockport.

"I didn't buy it last fall and I said to April, 'I should have bought it.' My daughter-in-law went back to see if they still had it," she said.

Gazzo didn't have the exact painting that April had seen, but she did have another version of the same scene. It was priced at about $275, but the artist simply gave it to the family.

It was one more example to the Kneeland family of the kindness that seems to be surrounding them.

"I wasn't for all this," Okie Kneeland said. "I guess the thing is, you can't deprive somebody of their own blessings."

The Kneelands now seem happily resigned to the fact that they are blessed to have so many people who want to help them. Anyone who wants to know how things are going can follow the progress on the Kneeland Benefit Fund page on Facebook.

Of course, people can also take a ride to Newfane to see the progress up close. Another thing the Kneelands didn't know was that people have been using their farm for years to get where they're going.

"I don't know how many times I've seen cars pulling into my driveway and turning around to go down Day Road. They're looking for that red barn, and it's not there," Billie Kneeland said, before adding: "We will have a red barn there pretty soon."