‘It’s OK to not be OK’: Bache-Martin community processes grief in wake of tragic fire

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A memorial for the Fairmount rowhouse fire victims on North 23rd Street

A memorial built to remember the 12 people killed in a rowhouse fire on North 23rd Street on Jan. 5, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Andre Wright has been a wreck since the Fairmount rowhouse fire.

As leader of Give and Go Athletics, which runs both a recess and after-school basketball program at Bache-Martin Elementary school, he knew several of the young victims well and had coached siblings Destiny McDonald, 15, and Quintien Tate-McDonald, 16.

He described Quintien as an outgoing self-starter with a hunger for knowledge: “In my opinion he was going to be mayor of the city one day, or at least be involved in politics or decision making of some kind.”

Destiny was a competitive athlete and quick learner, always mastering whatever was thrown her way, whether a basketball move or double dutch technique.

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After the tragedy — which killed seven other children and three adults all in the same family on Jan. 5 —  young people in the community started reaching out to Wright to check on him, making sure he was OK.

Andre Wright watches a basketball practice
Andre Wright, co-founder of Give and Go Athletics in Philadelphia, watches a basketball practice on Jan. 15, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

He was moved by their thoughtfulness, but also concerned about their response to the horrific event. Most didn’t want to talk about it, and insisted they were fine.

“Our kids have been exposed to so many traumatic events over the last two to three years,” Wright said, referencing the historic spike in gun violence in Philadelphia. “They’re learning how to just bury their trauma and not talk about it … But I know you’re not OK, ‘cause I’m not OK. It’s OK to not be OK.”

Wright, who has a background in behavioral health, said therapy and trauma-informed care are embedded in his athletic programs, ones he hopes create a safe environment for young people affected by the fire.

“I want them to feel comfortable talking about things that bother them so that they can heal,” he said at a community event Saturday.

Five of the victims were current or former Bache-Martin students, and the community has been reeling in the wake of the tragedy. On Tuesday morning, Janna McAdoo, Bache-Martin’s director of student services, prepared for the first day back in person at the school since the blaze. On her way in, she prayed and, in her mind, talked to the family.

“I just let them know that I love them and I’m really thinking about them and miss them.”

Standing in the school parking lot, she paused to remember the children.

Quinsha White, 18, a “sweet, beautiful young woman.”

Quintien, who had “big aspirations to possibly be a leader in this city.”

Destiny, “a tough cookie looking out for everybody.”

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Shaniece and Natasha Wayne, 7 and 10, “sweet and loving” sisters who attended the elementary school at the time of their deaths.

Bache-Martin had been virtual in the first week and a half after the fire, as omicron cases soared throughout Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, students streamed back into the school, past colorful balloons and encouraging signs with handwritten messages of support. Welcome Back Bache-Martin. We Love You. We Love Our Teachers and Staff.

Bache-Martin parents Jerilyn Dressler (left) and Tara Mataraza Desmond hang signs outside of Bache-Martin Elementary school
Bache-Martin parents Jerilyn Dressler (left) and Tara Mataraza Desmond hang signs outside of Bache-Martin Elementary school to “show staff and returning students some love on a really hard day,” Mataraza Desmond said. (Mallory Falk/WHYY)

Two parents spent the early morning stringing up those signs, handmade by Bache-Martin families.

“In the scheme of things it may not seem like a lot, but for us, all of the signs, the sidewalk chalk, the balloons — it’s like we’re giving a hug to our school,” said Jerilyn Dressler, president of the nonprofit Friends of Bache-Martin and mother of a 5th-grader.

The idea was to “show our staff and returning students some love on a really hard day, after a really hard almost two weeks,” said Tara Mataraza Desmond, a board member of both the friends group and the home and school association. Two of her children currently attend the school, and another graduated.

The groups have been quietly extending support to the school, from dropping off snacks for teachers to sorting through donations. They also started a mutual aid fund aimed at assisting families and addressing student inequity.

At the same time, parents have been helping their own children work through their trauma and grief.

“I think, with a lot of families, it comes out in a lot of questions,” Dressler said. “A lot of fear of fires. You know, ‘What do we do?’ So we talk through fire safety in our own home.”

This was the second fire in the neighborhood in a short period.

“I think that’s part of the processing, is getting an understanding of the facts and providing reassurance and comfort, and telling them that you are safe and you are loved.”

Her son wrote a poem to work through his feelings.

McAdoo thinks it will be good to address these questions and fears face-to-face.

“I think it will help our spirits to be around our students, and for our students to be around us,” McAdoo said. “We’ll better be able to help each other, being in person.”

Teddy bears are placed outside the North 23rd Street rowhouse
Teddy bears are placed outside the North 23rd Street rowhouse where 12 people lost their lives in a Jan. 5 fire. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Reminders of the loss’

Stepping back into a school building after a tragedy, though, can also stir up strong emotions.

“It may feel like you’re re-experiencing all the emotions you felt on that first day,” said Katherine Streit with the Uplift Center for Grieving Children, one of several groups working with Bache-Martin students and staff in the wake of the fire. “Re-entering a school building may be the first time that you’ve had to grapple with, ‘Oh my gosh, the last time I was here, so-and-so was here.’ We may be seeing things that remind us of the students and families who died.“

“It might be a particularly emotional day or week, and that’s OK,” she continued. “It doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong or you’re not making progress. It just means that re-entering that space is a poignant thing with all those physical reminders of the loss.”

As students transition back into physical classrooms, and staff work to support them while processing their own loss, several groups are helping with the grieving process.

Streit and her team work with schools that have experienced a death in the community, offering everything from grief groups to staff trainings.

She said adults are often tempted to want to cheer children up, or try to protect them from the realities of tragedies, but what’s most healing and helpful is validating their feelings.

A memorial for the Fairmount rowhouse fire victims on North 23rd Street
Across the street from Bache-Martin elementary school at 23rd and Parrish streets in Philadelphia, a memorial built to remember the 12 people killed in a rowhouse fire on Jan. 5, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s OK for kids to be sad,” she said. “It’s OK for kids to be angry. It’s actually a really reasonable response to what’s happening right now. When we change our goal in terms of fixing the emotion or cheering kids up, if we can change that to being with them and witnessing their grief and reminding them they’re not alone, that is what kids need.”

Yolanda Hughes is with Network of Neighbors Responding to Violence, a city program that provides trauma support after tragedies, and is also working with Bache-Martin.

Her team holds group discussions to gauge how people are doing, what supports they have in place, and what more they might need. They work to place people together who were impacted on a similar level, like creating a discussion group for children who were best friends of the victims, “because their experience and connection is different.”

Hughes said she avoids asking people how they’re feeling. “It’s just hard to put feelings into words when something like this has happened,” she said.

Instead, she walks through a set of concrete questions. What are some thoughts that have been on your mind since the incident occurred? What are some changes in your body or routine? What moods have you been experiencing?

“What naturally happens when people are grouped together in those conversations is that they realize, ‘I’m not by myself. I’m not the only person having these reactions,’” Hughes said. “It helps to generate safety. It starts to have people talking about the healing process, and people within those group discussions can support each other.”

‘A long-lasting way of honoring their legacy’

Katherine Streit, with Uplift Philly, said that tragedies like the Fairmount fire can reactivate past losses and resurface emotions for children who previously experienced trauma.

“When a loss happens in a school community, even if a child didn’t necessarily know the students who died very well, it’s really common for them to have a really powerful response, because it’s kind of excavating all those other experiences of loss,” she said.

And she said it’s important to recognize that trauma manifests in different ways.

“This myth gets told like, ‘Oh, if you experienced a ton of trauma, then you just become desensitized,’ she said. “The research is really clear that you actually become more sensitive to the next subsequent traumas or subsequent losses. The difficult thing is that a really common trauma response is showing up numb, feeling numb, appearing withdrawn, presenting with a flat affect. And that is a protective strategy.”

Streit said one meaningful step schools can take to help students acknowledge and process their grief is to find a way to honor the memory of the people they’ve lost, by creating some kind of memorial.

Her group has worked with schools that created honor or ancestor walls, with photos of loved ones who died.

“After somebody dies or after a tragedy like this, there is often that outpouring of support initially, but grief often is a lifetime haul,” Streit said. “Creating that visual representation of people we’ve lost in our school community can be a long-lasting way of honoring their legacy and memory.”

She stressed that it’s important for students themselves to have a say in what the memorial should look like.

Many adults who knew and loved the family are already coming up with their own, personal ways to honor their memories.

The Give And Go 12 and Under basketball athletes run drills
The Give And Go 12 and Under basketball athletes run drills at Vaux Big Picture High School on Jan. 15, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Andre Wright wants to help set up a fund so all children can access his sports program, without having to worry about cost. He also plans to create an all-girls basketball team, something Destiny longed for.

Wright remembers how proud he was a few months ago, when he ran into Quintien, who was walking two huge dogs. He’d picked up a part-time job at a doggie daycare.

“It warmed me up inside to know one, he was doing OK, and two, he spoke so proudly about having a job,” Wright said.

The memory stands out because Quintien asked Wright if he could come back and work for Give and Go. One of the joys of the program is when alumni return to work for the summer program.

“The last thing I said to him [then] was, ‘Yes, we’ll be looking forward to seeing you next summer,’” Wright said.

Janna McAdoo, director of student services at Bache-Martin, wants to channel her love of gardening into honoring the family. She’d like to plant rose bushes in the school garden this spring, in their memory.

“This was a good family, and they were a huge part of our community and our school, and they left impressions on all of us,” she said. “I miss them, but I’m gonna do right by them.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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