The pre-Thanksgiving fire at Saugatuck Congregational Church did more than inflict heavy damage on the 178-year-0ld building, and force relocation of services for the foreseeable future.
It also drove 35 children, ages 2 to 5, from their “home.”
That home is the Saugatuck Nursery School. Since its founding 43 years ago, it has served youngsters from Westport and surrounding towns — some of them minorities, some from less privileged circumstances than Westporters.
On April 4, 1968 Florence James Shook was enjoying a Tougaloo College choir concert at Carnegie Hall. She heard the news that Rev. Martin Luther King had just been killed. Driving home, she vowed to do something. She soon helped create the Saugatuck Nursery School, to carry on his dream.
This past October, Florence died. The month before, the nursery school had added a 3rd classroom, an $80,000 project — what director Ellen DeHuff calls “the beautiful Purple Room.”
On November 20 it — and the other school classrooms and offices — suffered smoke and water damage. Gone too were books, toys, arts and crafts supplies, computers — “everything you need to run a pre-school,” DeHuff says.
Almost immediately, the Westport Y offered space: 3 childcare classrooms that were not in use. In what DeHuff calls “Extreme Pre-School Makeover,” her staff of 10 spent several hours brightening the rooms for their kids.
The Y also provided equipment. Many Westporters offered books, toys and furniture — but there is no place to store them. (DeHuff suggested cash donations, so equipment can be bought later.)
The children use the Y gym. They also walk across the street to Christ & Holy Trinity Church, enjoying its playground for hour a day.
The nursery school staff is now working to gain church and town approval to use modular equipment in the church parking lot.
“It’s different, but the kids are loving it,” DeHuff says of the changes.
But the fire was “devastating” to the staff.
Still, she says, there are benefits to the disaster. Beyond the help offered by the community, there’s this.
“We realize more than ever that it’s not the building that makes Saugatuck Nursery School what it is,” says De Huff. “It’s the families and staff.”
These are challenging days for us. But together, we’re all making the pre-school work.”
And work very, very well.