Resident students at the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea traditionally pick nicknames for their classes. Fittingly, the nine women who graduated from the program Saturday named their class "the Phoenix" after a mythical creature that rises from the ashes upon death.
The class was the first to graduate since a fire that was found to be arson destroyed the school's headquarters in December and led officials to cancel the program's winter session.
The graduation ceremony at Boone Tavern "was awesome. It was just awesome," board member Shirley Thompson. "It just brought tears to my eyes to see the women stand up there and give their stories."
About 130 people came to the tavern, including donors, past graduates, and friends and family of the current graduates, to witness the milestone.
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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. During its 25-year history, it has helped some 600 women overcome adversity — such as low incomes or domestic abuse — and enrich their lives. The school also has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other national programs.
For about 14 years before the fire, a parsonage behind First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), on Chestnut Street, had served as the headquarters and classroom of the organization, founder Jane Stephenson said.
On Dec. 12, someone broke into the building and stole cash, Kentucky State Police said. The person then apparently set the building on fire.
The church's surveillance video caught a figure going in and out before flames became visible through the windows. Stephenson said she does not think an arrest has been made; state police and fire investigators could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The fire destroyed books, computers, supplies and clothing, leading to a planned winter session being canceled. The intensive, three-week programs are held in February and June.
"It's the only time we've ever had to cancel a class since the beginning," Stephenson said. "Everything we needed to run the program was gone."
At Saturday's ceremony, graduates praised Stephenson for leading the organization through a tough time, though Stephenson gave credit to hundreds of donors and volunteers who helped get the program back on its feet.
The program now operates inside First Christian Church, which provided the program with three rooms to serve as offices, classrooms and storage areas.
The organization is still struggling, Stephenson said, and in need of donations. Time that normally would have been spent applying for grants was used for relocating and cleaning up.
"We are a little behind on our fund-raising efforts," she said.
Also, the organization is trying to find photos of the 51 classes that have completed the program. The fire destroyed a wall of class photos that documented every group in the program's history.
"It was just heartbreaking for that to be gone," she said.
Leaders are hopeful that past graduates might have copies of the photos.
Any donors and past graduates who can help should contact the school at (859) 985-7200 or New Opportunity School for Women, 204 Chestnut Street, Berea, Ky. 40403.