RICHMOND — Just a few days after a fire completely destroyed the building that housed Meadowbrook Waldorf School, recovery efforts are in full swing.
“It’s such a tenacious, wonderful community of people—I know it will be rebuilt,” Betty Merner, a founder of the school, said Tuesday.
“Life is always full of challenges and things that we have no control over,” she continued. “But we learn from them, we move forward and we do it better than we did before.”
Firefighters from Richmond-Carolina and Hope Valley-Wyoming were called to the school—located on 25 acres off Kingstown Road in Richmond—at around 8:30 a.m. Sunday. On arrival, crews were faced with “a heavily seated fire in the ceiling,” according to a Facebook post by the Hope Valley-Wyoming Fire District.
More than 24 hours after the initial call, firefighters from the Richmond-Carolina Fire District remained at the scene. A dirt driveway curving upward into the trees leads to what was once the building housing MWS—now a massive pile of charred debris. Among the rubble, a small portion of wall still stood Monday, its windows hollow; the air still smelled like burning wood.
Michael Sweeney, chief of investigations at the Rhode Island Division of State Fire Marshal, said Monday that while the origin of the fire hadn’t been confirmed, evidence suggests it was likely caused by a lightning strike.
“It’s a theory we’re working on,” Sweeney pointed out a nearby tree, scarred apparently by a lightning strike.
Sweeney said several hours had likely passed between the time the fire was ignited and its detection. He added that multiple lightning strikes were reported in the area between around 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
“And then the fire gets called in around 8 in the morning,” he continued. Sweeney explained the fire alarm never actually went off and added that a generator located about 300 feet from the site of the fire was “fried.”
At its peak, the blaze was battled by close to 250 firefighters from some 30 districts. Over the course of the day, more than 20 tanker trucks poured what Sweeney said was an “exorbitant” amount of water onto the fire.
Around 25 firefighters from the Union Fire District were among those assisting Sunday, and were on the scene from around 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“It was sad,” Steven Pinch, chief of South Kingstown’s Union Fire District, said Monday, adding the fire “had too much headway.”
“It was unfortunate,” he continued, “but sometimes you just can’t win.”
The Kingston Fire District was also on scene. Pinch lauded the firefighters who came out to assist in extinguishing the fire.
“The fire community is great,” Pinch added. “Whenever you need help people are always willing to give you a hand—we depend on each other for support when we have big fires like that.”
Despite their devastating loss, school officials and board members got right to work Monday, arranging a fundraiser and looking for a rental space where the school’s 145 students can go when school opens Sept. 4.
On a GoFundMe page started by school officials, a vision for a new building mentions “a hall large enough for community to gather;” “classrooms equipped for science and artistic learning;” and “an industrial kitchen [to] enable our students to cook the foods they grow in the gardens.”
“And we’ll build right there—that’s our home,” Merner added. “It’s a beautiful piece of land.”
But achieving that vision won’t be easy. The goal is to raise $1.5 million for the first phase of rebuilding.
“It’s a big blow,” Jill Dockray, Merner’s daughter and a parent of two MWS students, said Monday about the fire.
Built in 2007—after years of fundraising efforts and renting out classroom space—the building destroyed Sunday had been the first permanent home of MWS.
“We know how much work it took to get through these 11 years, starting from nothing and creating this K through 8 school that was so beautiful,” said Dockray, whose daughters—one a rising seventh-grader and the other a rising eighth-grader—have each been enrolled in the school since kindergarten.
The school was established in 1990 based on an education model developed by philosopher Rudolf Steiner that according to the MWS website, “unites academics, the arts, movement, practical work and a deep respect for the natural world.”
Dockray recalled that during the school’s early days classes were taught out of a living room.
“After about 15 years of them renting space they finally found that [land in Richmond] and raised the money to build the school that was Meadowbrook,” she added.
The building’s supplies and furniture were a collection of items either built or donated by community members—a bunch of lockers at the school for example had been handmade, carved from wood by a MWS parent.
“We never had a million-dollar budget to build an auditorium,” Dockray said. “It would be like, we need a library, so we’d collect used books and make a library.”
News of the devastating fire spread quickly Sunday, and was met with an outpouring of support from area businesses and other community members. As firefighters worked tirelessly to attack the fire, volunteers flooded in to help the effort in whatever way they could—Kingston Pizza of Richmond, K&S Pizza and Town Pizza II all donated food; Aliana’s Ale House helped set up a line of communication.
As if those donations aren’t evidence enough of the overwhelming support, one look at the school’s Facebook page paints quite the picture.
Dozens of posts to the page share messages of resilience and hope. In one message: “we are with you in spirit.” In another: “I’m ready to help.”
“The outpouring from the wider community has been truly wonderful,” Merner said. “And we’re just so thankful too to all those firefighters who were there for so, so long.”
On the first day of the MWS school year, a rose ceremony recognizes the rising of each class, with eighth graders handing roses to their assigned “reading buddies” in the first grade.
“That’s a really special ceremony on our first day,” Dockray said. “And we’ll still do that no matter where we end up.”
Funds can be donated directly to the school at www.gofundme.com/8wxzy-rebuilding-our-school?member=524186.
Dockray and other MWS parents are also organizing a used book sale fundraiser. Book donations can be brought to either Salon Bella in Wakefield—where Dockray is a hair stylist—or to Rhode Island Power Yoga in North Kingstown.