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Grenfell Tower fire leaves lasting mark on community

Photo from Carl Court/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: The City of London skyline is seen behind the remains of Grenfell Tower on June 26, 2017 in London, England. 79 people have been confirmed dead and dozens still missing after the 24 storey residential Grenfell Tower block was engulfed in flames in the early hours of June 14, 2017.

On June 14, 2017, at around 1:00 a.m. a fire occurred at the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington where 80 people died, 70 were injured and 255 people were left without a home. Features Editor John Towfighi, Opinions Editor Sophie Ashley and Culture Editor Quinn Whitman explore the relief, the people and the impact of this deadly fire.

The relief

In the center of West London’s borough of Kensington and Chelsea, The Rugby Portobello Trust has served the community of Ladbroke Grove and surrounding areas as a charitable organization since 1884. The Trust assists local students and maintains a strong sense of community throughout generations.

When the heart of this very community, and the city of London, were struck by the June 14 fire at Grenfell Tower, Rugby Portobello’s building, just a stone’s throw from the tower, became an immediate beacon of relief and recovery.

Living across the street from the Trust, caretaker Chris Collins and his wife, Janice, opened up the doors to the public at 1:30 a.m. on June 14. They instantly organized resources and brought people into the shelter. The Director of Volunteers at the Trust, Catherine Moss, described the hectic nature of the night: “They started receiving people in their boxer shorts, people just had nowhere to go,” she said.

As the confusion continued through the early morning hours after the fire, people gravitated toward the Trust, coming from all over to assist the residents and those from around the tower. “There were people who offered help from all over the place, even in the middle of the night,” Moss said.

Amidst the aftermath of the fire, the Trust worked hard to help those affected in all ways possible. Reflecting on the following morning, Moss remembers the building as “heaving” with people seeking assistance. By sorting out food and clothing drives, the Trust began providing the people with “anything and everything.”

Focusing first on basic everyday needs, the volunteers working at the Trust filtered through donations and began securing relations with major clothing companies like Boden and Selfridges. “[Staff and volunteers] were ordering specific things like boys tracksuit bottoms, or hijabs, or exercise tops for women, they were trying to make it targeted and helpful,” Moss said.

With many offering help, different kinds of assistance emerged from different sections of the Trust’s staff and volunteers. A major undertaking was the technology operation at the Trust, where representatives from banks helped victims reestablish themselves financially and secure their accounts. Leading technology producers also came to aid. “The first day, the top companies were arriving with bags and bags of phones…with sim cards. There were volumes and volumes of things,” Moss said.

In the following summer months, Rugby Portobello sometimes worked in cramped space, as the office was constantly crowded with volunteers and people from all over London. “We were very short on office space, computers, and everybody just had to [share] desks and just figure it out, but at the same time people always kept the professional standard,” Moss said.

As members of the community themselves, the staff at the Trust also experienced the heartbreak of losing people in the fire, or seeing friends and families affected. “It was a tragic event, and we’ve all known people who died, but the people [who came to volunteer] were superb. I mean everybody… they were just fantastically effective,” Moss said.


The people

In the years before the Grenfell Tower fire, the Trust had a significant connection to some residents, as the tower is part of the Lancaster West Estate, an area that the organization has worked closely with in past years. Given the direct relationship to Rugby Portobello through the Community Partnership program, many students have felt personal connections to the fire. “It hit so close to home,” Annie Howell (’19), a two-season volunteer, said. “To imagine that [the kids I worked with] were affected by something like that is horrible because you do get very close to [them].”

Through “homework help” sessions, the Trust and its volunteers begin interacting with children from the area from a young age. Maya Bajpai (‘20), a regular volunteer through Community Partnerships, enjoys working with the children because of the friendly environment that has been built. “[The children] were all so happy. They found joy in the smallest of things. In the beginning, when we got there, they would hand out a box of cookies to each other, and they were always so excited,” she said.

Providing these children with the necessary support and direction following such a traumatic incident, the Trust used donation money after the fire to expand its program and began new summer options for families. “We ran this as a community project,” Moss said. “We ran a large children’s program which was at two primary schools; it had all kinds of things. In the end, there was a musical, and there were two family fun days.”

As the new year of programs began in September, student volunteers returning to the Trust were hoping to keep up the same support and uplifted morale for the benefit and well-being of the children. “The environment will definitely be different knowing that something like this happened,” Howell said. “But I’ll still approach it with the same happiness and devotion to these kids because they do deserve that same kind of compassion.”


The recovery

The impact of the tragedy, even a few months removed, still surrounds the community. For Director of Service Learning Brandon Block and many others, the question of how to move forward remains. Block believes it is imperative to investigate the factors that played into the fire and insist changes where necessary. “I think we have a duty to do what we can to help those people who have been directly affected,” Block said. “And I think we need to ensure that we take steps to be certain that nothing like this ever happens again.”

The shell of the Tower, in its charred state, is still visible over the London skyline and its presence is still strong in conversation and everyday life. A main goal for ASL has been to respect those affected by the incident and approach possible discussions about the fire ensuring that there is no misrepresentation of the situation. “We’re sensitive that people in the community may be experiencing a sense of loss or may have loss that affected them directly,” Block said. “We want to make sure that any kind of discussion is thoughtful, and leads to greater understanding instead of some form of sensationalization.”

Echoing Block, Health Teacher Bambi Thompson, a past volunteer at the Trust, sees the job of the school as that of being an extended help to the people affected and feels it is best for ASL to maintain a sense of respect and empathy for the parties involved. “[We need to think] what are the needs of the community, and how can we best align ourselves with that,” Thompson said.

Grade 4 Teacher and Community Partnership Coach Kate Powell attended a volunteer reception in September and believes that it is essential to continue support for the victims of the fire while keeping spirits high. “Part of it was to keep up morale, because the further you get from an event, it falls into the backgrounds of people’s minds,” Powell said. “There is a lot of sadness around the families that were lost and we discussed how to support the community members in an ongoing way.”

For those at the Trust, the organization continues into the new school year, and while the heartbreak lingers, the programs continue with an intent of helping the families and children ease back into life as it was before the fire. “We want to give them a sense of normal life, [and] I think it’s very important not to overdramatize,” Moss said. “There’s a lot of support being offered as people need it if they need it, but equally it’s nice to get back to regular life.”

Moving forward with the same standards they have held themselves to, the Rugby Portobello Trust is looking to offer continuous comfort and structure for the people, being of assistance in a variety of ways as the months carry on. “Our goals are to help the community regenerate, and it’s important to work with everyone as a group,” Moss said.


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About the Contributor
John Towfighi
John Towfighi, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus
John Towfighi (’20) is the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of The Standard. Towfighi has been involved with journalism since the end of his Grade 7 year, when he joined the MS newspaper The Scroll. During his four years as a member of The Standard, he has worked mainly in the Features section. Alongside writing, Towfighi is interested in U.S. history and foreign affairs. He was a member of the 2018-19 Writer’s Seminar, and plays gospel and jazz piano in his free time.

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