Church and community work together in face of school disaster

This article appeared in the Ely Ensign in November 2004 on page 6.

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A Cambridge church set up an emergency crèche and care facility for children from a primary school just hours after fire broke out destroying almost half their building.

The swift response came from neighbouring St Augustine’s Church while the community looked on in horror as the whole of the Junior School wing at Mayfield County Primary went up in flames on the evening of Sunday 26th September.

Forty per cent of the school in Warwick Road was destroyed by the fire, which broke out at about 8.30pm and took a hundred firefighters more than three hours to bring under control. The cost of damage is estimated at around £1 million.

“Our garden backs on to the school grounds and we had a close view of the rapidly spreading fire and the terrible damage it was causing,” said diocesan communication director Owen Spencer-Thomas.

“Our first concern was what the children would do the next morning. A small group of us put our heads together and very soon a strategy emerged.

“Philipa King, Rector of the Ascension, offered the use of St Augustine’s Church and we spoke to the headteacher, several of the school governors and representatives of the local education authority.

“By 10.00 pm a team of volunteer child protection accredited carers was in place to staff the impromptu care centre for up to fifty children as the blaze continued to rage.

“The next task was to notify parents who desperately need somewhere to care for their children the following morning. We drafted a press release and emailed this to the local radio stations and other media.”

The following morning local radio and television breakfast programmes carried news of the fire and arrangements for the children’s care provision at St Augustine’s Church.

Up-to-date bulletins were also regularly posted on the school website.

Philipa King said, “I was greatly heartened by members of the parish who responded to a telephone call late in the evening by turning up at 8.00 am on Monday morning for what was to become an impromptu holiday club.

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“The response from within the neighbourhood was amazing. From early Monday morning a steady flock of people came to the church bringing play equipment to keep the children amused.

“They were, of course, bewildered and confused by the dramatic change in their circumstances and we had tears as well as the inevitable glee of little children missing lessons.

“By the end of the week after the children had been visited by their teachers, we all began to settle to the idea that although buildings were important, the quality of the institution is in the people,” she said. “To that extend the excellent community at Mayfield remains.”

“This was a wonderful example of how church and community can pull together in times of crisis,” said Owen Spencer-Thomas.

“Churches have both the network and the resources to move remarkably fast. By dint of their Christian commitment they are always on call to help those in need.

“A small group of people who know each other well and have the confidence of the wider community are trusted to take responsibility.

“The local parish also had the wider support structure of the diocese which provided books, games and equipment, the essential child protection support and vital links with the local education authority.”