February 16, 2001  

Her kids are in foster care.

She's in a psychiatric ward.

Her husband spent yesterday in court.

Yet, in the aftermath of the news that Carol Kampen allegedly torched her house while she, her children and three others were inside, the Bellingham woman's community is not judging her with contempt.

Instead, they're offering a hand.

''I've even gotten some calls asking if anyone is taking care of the animals,'' Bellingham Police Chief Gerald Daigle said yesterday. ''She's going through some hard times and there are people out there who want to help.''

It's hard not to feel her pain.

Last year, the bank nearly foreclosed on her home.

A rocky marriage ended in separation.

Money woes forced her to borrow cash from neighbors.

But it was the suicide death of her mother a week ago, say friends, that propelled the Norwood native deeper into the throes of depression.

''Someone saw a woman all dressed up walking down the street'' on Monday, said neighbor Maurice Chevalier. ''I think she was trying to get to the funeral. I wish she'd told me she needed a ride.''

That's just what this former substitute teacher desperately needed.

The ride to her own mother's funeral never came.

Neighbors claim her husband never showed up.

At her wit's end, Kampen, police said, doused her belongings with cleaning solvent, set her home on fire and crouched on the bottom bunk in her sons' bedroom, clutching them dearly early Tuesday morning. A bureau blocked the door.

It took a brave police officer to set those boys free from the burning home and to force Kampen to safety. She is now at Worcester State Hospital serving a 20-day evaluation before her next court date. Her kids, ages 6 and 11, are in the custody of the state Department of Social Services.

Today her home is quiet.

An old, wicker rocking chair sits motionless next to the front door.

A miniature wooden windmill sways softly in the yard.

A vibrant flag hangs over the steps. These carefully placed trappings of a cared-for home are telltale signs of the efforts this woman took as she lovingly created a home for her kids, before her life fell apart.

''I think it's because of the list of hard times,'' said Chief Daigle. ''The suicide of her mother, the fact her children were young, the marital problems she was having; I think people look at the problems she has been having and feel bad for her.''

Close friend Estelle Bubble knows the real Carol Kampen, and she's stepping up to help. She spoke with Kampen on the phone yesterday.

''She sounded confused or ... or I don't know how to explain it. She was just crying all the time,'' Bubble said. ''She was saying 'I don't want to go to prison. What am I going to do about my house?'

''She's worried about her house and her kids. She wants her kids back. She's a loving mom. She would never hurt her kids.''

Daigle said several locals have called the police station offering help. Others have approached him with their heartfelt expressions.

It's hard not to feel her pain.

As she crouched in Milford District Court on Valentine's Day, facing arson and five charges of attempted murder, and hearing perfect strangers tick off the desperate details of her life, the look on her face showed utter despair.

Everyone saw that face splashed across the morning papers and the evening news.

The sadness in her eyes is hard to forget.

Even a caller to this newsroom yesterday couldn't help but respond.

''I could see what she's been through and I want to help,'' the woman said. ''She needs money and I'd like to give it to her.''

Friends say she surely needs money but she also needs understanding to help her heal.

''The only way they can help is when they see her in court is be there for her,'' Bubble said.

Her neighbors are hoping to raise enough money to clean and repair her 71 Center St. home. Until then, Chevalier is feeding her two cats and keeping an eye on the place.

''Carol was there when we all needed it,'' Bubble said. ''She would never say no. She would go without to help people out. That is her nature.

''My goal is to help her get out of her hole.''

Estelle Bubble can be reached at 401-766-4594. To make donations to the children, checks can be sent to: The DSS Kids Fund, Inc., Attn: Sas Caruso, Department of Social Services, 24 Farnsworth St., Boston, MA 02210. Donations should be specified for the Kampen children.