Clark County

Police: Fire that destroyed women's school in Berea set intentionally

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

BEREA — The fire that destroyed the New Opportunity School for Women in Berea was set intentionally after someone broke in Monday and stole money from a cash box, Kentucky State Police said.

The building that housed the longtime non-profit's classrooms and offices on Chestnut Street was a total loss after the fire tore through it.

No injuries were reported. Police said the fire could be related to another fire on nearby Washington Avenue in Berea; that one was ruled an arson.

Trooper Paul Blanton, spokesman for the state police post in Richmond, said surveillance video from First Christian Church, which owns the property that the school sits on, 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 the money was missing.

"They broke into the cash box. We're not sure exactly how much they got," he said. "And they lit the place on fire."

Blanton said police were preparing surveillance photos and would seek the public's help in identifying the person.

The fire was called in about 2:30 a.m. by a Berea College student who lives nearby.

The non-profit at 204 Chestnut Street is near the college's campus and next door to the Berea Fire Department. Despite the proximity, the upper floors were already engulfed when firefighters arrived, and there was little they could do to save the structure. The outside of the building was intact, with only minor charring on the brick and white siding, but the inside was gutted by the blaze.

The Berea Fire Department turned the case over to state police after an arson investigator determined that it was intentionally set. The school is a career and leadership development program for low-income women in central Appalachia. It provides a free, three-week program to teach women basic skills to continue their education or get a job, including computer, math, and interview and leadership skills.

Women in the program live in a dorm at nearby Berea College.

The office held business records, most of which appeared to have been destroyed in the fire, although some file cabinets were still standing.

While fire crews cleaned up Monday morning, school officials stood outside, assessing the damage.

"It's devastating. That's the only thing I can say," said Lillian Pratt, clothing coordinator and a graduate of the program.

Firefighters did not allow school officials inside, but, judging by the damage seen through the windows, little of the school's supplies and records seemed to have survived.

"From what we can tell, it's a total, burned-out loss," executive director Lori Sliwa said. "We're just focused on moving forward. Already our brains our focused on what we need to do to prepare."

The building that burned housed the central office, kitchen and classrooms where students spent most of their time. The fire destroyed computers, clothes, books, toiletries and supplies, all of which were donated or bought with donated money.

"We're hoping that we're still going to have the records of the women ... that have been in the program all these years," said Jane Stephenson, the organization's founder.

Stephenson said the organization is nearly 25 years old.

Last month, Stephenson submitted the winning entry to AARP's Create the Good national contest and won $15,000 for the school. The grant, which the school is scheduled to accept Thursday at a ceremony at Boone Tavern, was to be used for new computers.

The check presentation will go on, Stephenson said.

"We really need that money now," she said.

Stephenson, 73, said in her letter that the New Opportunity School for Women expanded seven years ago to Lees-McRae College in the mountains of North Carolina. It helps women ages 30 to 60 in difficult straits. Eighty percent of participants have family incomes of less than $10,000 a year.

Stephenson said in her letter that nearly 700 women have graduated from the school, and 79 percent of recent graduates are employed, in school or both.

"We feel it's so important for these women to learn just how much they have to offer the world and believe in themselves," she said in her entry. "They are dramatically changing their own lives and those of their families."

Even though the building was destroyed, the school will stay open; officials will have to find a new building, Stephenson said Monday. The school will probably have to cancel a session that was scheduled for February.

Still, officials expressed optimism.

They said if any organization can make it, it's this one.

"Jane has been doing this program for a long time," Pratt said. "She always had the program not knowing where the money would come from or where anything would come from. But it always came through, and it will come through again."

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