The looks on the faces of wards of the State whose Jamaica National Children’s Home was destroyed by fire on Friday told stories of anxiety and what they believe the future hold for them.
“A where we a guh stay, Sir,” one asked Prime Minister Andrew Holness who visited the scene off Gordon Town Road in St Andrew shortly after.
The children were moved to an adjoining facility where they were tended to by staff and volunteers while firefighters continued cooling down operations late into the evening.
Member of Parliament for the area Fayval Williams, who was also on site, told the Jamaica Observer that all 41 wards of the State who were occupying the main building at the time of the fire were all safe and accounted for.
“I got a call at about quarter past six and I came here and saw the raging fire. Thank God no lives were lost. The Ministry of Education was informed and right away they were able to activate the Children Protection and Family Services Agency and there are two representatives here,” Williams added.
“Everybody is rallying around because they understand the situation and they understand that there are children, some of them mentally and physically challenged. It’s children who don’t have parents that this institution caters for, so their comfort right now is important. And to know that there are people around who can talk them through what is happening is going to be important, because as children they may not understand why their home is burnt down, so it is important that they get counseling.
“There are not many hydrants in this area, which is something I am going to have to advocate for considering the number of institutions that are here in this area. There are several schools that cater to children with disability — you have children who are in the baby stage up to high-schoolers in this area,” said Williams.
Holness, before he could answer the first question posed, was hit with another suggestion: “Sir, we a family enuh. Sir, them fi do what them would a want fi other pickney. Them would not mek fi them pickney stay a homes, so them fi make we stay a fi wi homes, because them a go want bring we a homes weh some people a do some things we never yet do, so we stay with our family. We nuh want move.”
Noting their concern, Holness replied: “The aim is to keep all of you together for as long as possible, because your friendships and bonds are important. We have space and facility in another location and we will move you to that and then from there, there will be a further decision as to where your permanent location will be. What I am going to be doing is going back to see what we can do to rebuild the home.”
He further acknowledged the fact that this was the third children’s home to be destroyed by fire, following the Wortley Home for Girls gutted in 2015, and the Walker’s Place of Safety that was destroyed last year.
“Sir, I hope you mean weh yuh just say enuh, Sir. Yuh say you a guh see weh you can do fi build back national (children’s home) because them say that bout Walker’s Place of Safety say the pickney them a guh guh back and them never guh back,” the little girl insisted further.
Holness reassured the children that they would be moved to another location not yet determined.
“One of the things that you must do is have a little patience that things that are committed will come through. It’s good to have a healthy dose of scepticism, but I am happy that you have said Fayval Williams is a woman of her word and she will get it done. This home has potential — it has the land space and it is in a very good location. It lends itself to further development so don’t worry about it; it will be done,” said Holness.
Outgoing director of the home, Leroy Anderson told the Sunday Observer that the children were about to have dinner when a member of staff noticed smoke coming from the girls’ dormitory.
“We were engaged in a number of activities at the home with some children. We had just finished the summer programme in the evening and some children went to their dorms to get some rest, while others were still on the outside watching a movie. At about 5:40 we saw fire coming from a room upstairs. We responded immediately by evacuating all children on the dorm. Two children were asleep when the fire started,” said Anderson.
As to where the children would have slept that night, Anderson said some would be relocated while others would remain.
“We have 41 wards who need relocation but I am not sure how many will be removed tonight. It depends on the space that is available. It might be a camping out for some if they stay here. We will do our best to make them as comfortable as possible,” said Anderson.
In the meantime, Holness told reporters that the Government will be responding quickly to have the facility rebuilt.
“The truth is that this gives us an opportunity to take a second look at the facility. Maybe it is a signal that we need to do some more investment in our children’s homes. Maybe we need to be building new buildings.
“The children who have been dislocated, they will be kept together in the initial stages. They will be taken to another location that we recently just upgraded. They will be there temporarily until a decision is made as to exactly where they will be hosted for the long term,” said Holness.
The Jamaica Fire Brigade has estimated the loss from Friday’s fire at $150 million.