As a family who’s been deeply involved with the Cub and Girl Scouts, the Matyas clan knows the importance of being prepared. But until that preparedness is tested in real-time, it’s hard to know exactly how well you will respond. On a recent evening in November, the entire Matyas family would face an emergency that would put all those Scouting skills to the test. In fact, their lives may have depended on it.
A Busy Family
Michael Matyas is the first American-born member on his father’s side of the family.
“My grandparents both escaped the Holocaust in Hungary, met, then escaped to Sydney, Australia, where they had my dad. My grandfather built a clothing company called Dale Slacks. When my father was 15, they sold the business and everything they had, then took a boat to America. They bought their first property in the Hollywood Hills in the 1960s, which we still have. I’ve been building off their success since then,” says Michael, who now owns 16 residential properties and is the proud manager of the family business.
While Michael grew up in Beverly Hills, he and wife Jessalyn have called Westchester home for the last 12 years and love the community.
Jessalyn is a thriving Pilates instructor with her own private practice. The athletic, vibrant couple have two kids: Jenifer 16, and Maxwell 10, who attend WISH Academy and WISH Community School respectively. Together, they are a typical family: busy every minute of every day. The kids play a ton of sports including soccer and baseball. Maxwell currently plays on the Del Rey Sea Devils travel team and dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. Jenifer hopes to one day put her keen archaeology skills and geologic knowledge to use by hunting treasures around the globe.
Also on the schedule are Girl Scout and Cub Scout meetings and advanced scouting activities. Jenifer has been a Girl Scout since she was six and has earned the organization’s highest ranking of Senior Cadet in Troop 1835. Jessalyn is Maxwell’s Cub Scout Troop leader of Den 9 with Pack 748. The Scouting motto of “Be Prepared” would play a big role in the family’s safety on the evening of November 1.
A Love of Water
Despite all the varied interests and activities, Jessalyn says that first and foremost, they are a “water family,” and look to get in or near the ocean every chance they get. Jenifer agrees, saying, “On a warm summer day, we usually grab the surfboards and go down to Surfrider Beach and start there for a few hours.”
If the surf isn’t great, she’ll comb the beach looking for unusual or rare rocks to add to her growing collection.
With their love of ocean-based activities, it’s perhaps ironic that this “water family” would be challenged with something so diametrically opposite as a fire, but that’s unfortunately what happened. Luckily, their preparedness and flexibility have led to the family’s resilience.
Jessalyn’s Home Business
During the pandemic, Jessalyn started doing Pilates and loved it so much that she decided to go through a rigorous training program to become a certified instructor. Though it took her 400 hours of training and testing, Jessalyn calls it, “One of the greatest decisions of my life!”
Preferring to work with clients one-on-one, Jessalyn and Michael decided to turn the ADU unit of their Westchester home into a private Pilates studio. They decked out the space to create a welcoming exercise area complete with workout equipment and a reformer, a large, rectangular exercise platform that glides back and forth to create resistance and help build core muscles.
On the night of November 1, the Matyas family was sitting down for dinner. It was dark out and Maxwell and Jenifer were setting the table. Michael went to get some more drinks from their outdoor refrigerator when he noticed something startling.
“There was an orange glow behind our ADU–the entire fence was on fire! There were 30 to 40-foot flames shooting up into the tree,” says Michael.
Michael yelled for someone to call 911, but Jenifer was already on it. Having prepared for the unexpected, Jenifer began to follow her Girl Scout emergency plan.
“We go through multiple survival situation programs, including what would happen if there’s a fire, what to do, how to respond. So that definitely helped,” says Jenifer, who shares that her survival instinct kicked in. “Get the dog, get whatever you can, grab your brother and get out of the house!”
After setting the dining room table, Maxwell had gone to his bedroom and closed his door.
“I heard screaming, and when I looked outside, the whole fence was on fire!” he says of the scary situation.
Seeing his sister grab the dog, 15-year-old Theodore, Maxwell exited the house to find safety with a neighbor.
Michael says you don’t know how frightening a fire can be until you actually experience it.
“It was pretty hectic,” says Michael. “Then the building went up in flames, and the first thing Jess yelled is, ‘My reformer! I can’t lose it!’”
“That piece of equipment is my livelihood, my business,” adds Jessalyn.
“So, the two of us are dragging out the reformer, but it gets stuck in the doorway. We try to adjust some stuff and just as we set it down, the windows blow out! The flames spread so quickly, and we’re sitting there trying to disassemble this reformer as flames are coming in and we finally get it out,” says Michael, who ventured back one more time into the burning ADU to save a safe containing important documents out of the attic.
“In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “But you just don’t really think when there’s a fire until you’re absolutely stopped at the last moment. I just went until I could not go anymore.”
A Full-Circle Moment
“The fire department came rather quickly, and they did a wonderful job. It was Fire Station 5, who we’ve done lots of Scout work with so it was a very full-circle moment to have them actually come and help us in a time of need,” says Jessalyn.
Luckily, the fire did not spread to the main house or any of the neighbors’ property. The fire department ruled that it was an electrical issue from a clear string of lights adorning the fence.
“I take clients as early as six in the morning, so I turned them on so there was some light for my clients. They don’t know if something broke or if an animal chewed on something, but it caught the fence and it went from nothing to consumption and total loss of the ADU really quick,” says Jessalyn.
Due to smoke and water damage in the main house, the family had to relocate to an Airbnb. Fortunately, Jessalyn was able to bring her Pilates reformer to the temporary home and continued taking clients just a few days later.
A Calamity with a Silver Lining
Though going through a fire is a terrifying experience, the Matyas family all felt completely supported by the people around them. They’re grateful for the friends and family who rallied behind them to offer help.
“Our community fed us for about a month with a meal train, and it really meant the world to us. People opened up their homes to us. It was very touching. We didn’t realize what a great community we actually lived in until, unfortunately, something like this happens and then everybody comes out,” says Jessalyn.
For now, Jessalyn is grateful to be working with clients in her temporary studio, and helping people achieve their fitness goals in 2024. She’s looking forward to being back training at her ADU once its finished later this year. In the meantime, the incident has brought the family even closer than they were before.
Jenifer has this advice to anyone who might experience a fire: “Grab the pets, grab your [siblings]. That’s what’s savable. Don’t put yourself in any danger trying to save your stuff; things can be replaced!”
It’s a sentiment shared by the entire Matyas family who urge everyone to make an emergency plan–just in case.
And though that plan certainly helped, the real silver lining is the Westchester community.
“It makes me very emotional just talking about it because the people here are super, super sweet,” says Jessalyn.
How long has Westchester been your hometown?
Westchester has been our home since 2010. We first moved into a rental on McConnell Ave. We fell in love with the area and bought our current home in the Westport Heights neighborhood in 2012.
What’s the perfect day in Westchester look like?
Our perfect Westchester day would consist of going to the Westchester Farmers’ Market in the Triangle, followed by a visit to The Book Jewel so we can visit the shop cat Paiges and grab a new book. After, we’d head to Westchester Park, where our daughter could be found practicing in the skate park and our son would certainly be throwing or kicking a ball or playing at the playground with a friend he ran into. We’d end our perfect Westchester day by grabbing some tacos from any of the amazing trucks or street vendors in the area and head to the beach to catch the sunset, maybe some waves and build a bonfire with our friends.
Since you’ve made Westchester your home, what is the biggest change you have seen in the community?
Since first moving to Westchester, we’ve noticed a major increase in homeless-related issues in the community. We miss the Wednesday Farmers’ Market and community activities that used to take place in the library parking lot and adjoining park.
There are so many great people and businesses in this community; is there anyone you would like to give a special shout out to?
Big shout out to all my clients who are mainly locals, they know who they are. I wouldn’t have the business I’m blessed to have today if it wasn’t for them, and I would not have been able to bounce back from the loss of my studio in November without their love and support.
As a family, we are so thankful for the organizations that have helped us build our community family. Starting with WISH Community and Academy Schools who have taught and nurtured our children by meeting them where they are as individuals and helping them succeed, all while instilling a deep sense of compassion, kindness and inclusion.
Del Rey American Little League is a big part of our lives, between regular season and the travel baseball team, Del Rey Sea Devils. Many thanks to all the coaches and board members for the time, hard work and guidance they give, on and off the field. Same can be said for the coaches, refs and organizers of our local Region 7 AYSO program. Last but not least, shout out to the families and leaders of both our kids’ scout troops: Girl Scout Troop 1835 and Cub Scout Pack 748.
Story by Shanee Edwards. Photo by Zsuzsi Steiner.