Berea school regroups after fire

Church, donors come to aid of non-profit that helps women donation aid

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 24, 2011 

A Dec. 12 fire destroyed The New Opportunity School in Berea. Police recently arrested a suspect in the theft and fire.

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The New Opportunity School for Women in Berea, gutted by a Dec. 12 fire that police say was arson, already is on its way back.

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Berea is allowing the non-profit to use three rooms in the lower level of its education building for six months to a year, said founder and adviser Jane Stephenson.

"They have been wonderful to us," Stephenson said of the church. "This doesn't rush us to find more permanent quarters. This is a really good temporary solution for us. We know we've got at least six months to a year, if we want to extend it that long."

The house that burned was a former home for a minister, and the church rented it to the school, which paid utilities.

The New Opportunity School offers career and educational counseling, coordinates internships, and puts on workshops in job-search skills and computer basics for Appalachian women.

Women learn about the school primarily through word-of-mouth or brochures placed at adult-learning centers and social agencies. The center concentrates its help on 28 women a year. As part of the program, the women attend an intensive three-week session at the school.

Yvonne Crabtree of Berea, who graduated from New Opportunity in the 1990s, said, "It makes me sick every time I drive by" to see the school's former site in ruins. Crabtree said the school gave her support and confidence to get a bachelor's degree from Berea College in 2000.

"It gives you the courage to pull up your straps and go on," Crabtree said. It made all the difference "knowing that somebody is behind you saying 'Yeah, you can do it.' ... I didn't know how to turn a computer on or anything when I started."

No injuries were reported in the fire that Kentucky State Police said was set intentionally. Surveillance video from First Christian Church showed someone going into the building, turning on the lights, and coming back out shortly before the fire started.

A state police arson investigator later discovered that money was missing from a cash box. No arrests have been made, but Stephenson said investigators are confident they will find the culprit.

Stephenson said she doesn't know the total value of the loss to the organization, but she said the burglar probably took less than $100 from the petty cash box.

"Why did he burn us?" Stephenson said. "It's just beyond my comprehension that anybody would do something like that. If he knew at all what we're about, being a non-profit, he ought to know that we don't have any money."

Meanwhile, the school's classes won't restart immediately because the priority now is getting the office functional again.

"We've had some desks and chairs donated and some refurbished computers that Berea College donated to us," Stephenson said. "We're getting so many calls and emails; until we get the office set up, we just had to answer them from home or redirect them. So we've got to get the office going."

Stephenson also wants to restock the school's clothes closet; its contents were lost to water and soot damage. Two rooms in the burned building's basement were devoted to the closet, which the school's students used to find clothes for job interviews or work.

Stephenson said she and the staff have appreciated donations of clothing, office supplies and money.

"You know, I've been saying, 'We have nothing, not even a paper clip.' Well, somebody brought us some paper clips, ... so I'll quit saying that," she said.

"We're so dedicated to what we do that we've said from day one, this is not going to stop us from continuing our mission. We think of all the things that the women in our program have overcome, and we can overcome this, too. We're still here to help them."

People may send monetary donations to New Opportunity School for Women, 204 Chestnut Street, Berea, Ky. 40403. Clothing and office supplies, such as printer paper, may be dropped off at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church, 180 East Maxwell Street, Lexington.

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