With help, Gifford is mending

A scene from last December shows firefighters battling in vain to save the Gifford School’s Fenn Center; the Weston school is on its way to replacing the building in time for graduation in May. A scene from last December shows firefighters battling in vain to save the Gifford School’s Fenn Center; the Weston school is on its way to replacing the building in time for graduation in May. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Andrew Clark
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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It was two days before Christmas when the fire broke out. The Gifford School’s beloved Fenn Center — home to its auditorium, gym, science room, and cafeteria — quickly burned to the ground.

For executive director Mike Bassichis, the blaze has had a crippling effect on the Weston private school’s operations.

“It has caused such an unbelievable inconvenience for everyone,’’ Bassichis said.

“Right now we have the nurse, who had her office in the Fenn Center, working out of a handicap bathroom that had its toilet removed. The art room is functioning as our kitchen. We had to get trailers to temporarily house certain classes. And the kids have to go to other schools to participate in athletics, because our fields have been all torn up due to the construction.’’

But the school is forging ahead.

“The biggest bright side of any of this is that no one got hurt in the fire,’’ said Bassichis.

He said that despite the fire, enrollment at the school, which focuses on learning, behavioral, or emotional challenges, has stayed steady at about 100 students in elementary grades through high school.

Construction of a replacement for the Fenn Center, which was built in 1992, began in July and is expected to be finished in time for graduation ceremonies in May.

The new building will cost roughly $4 million, according to Bassichis, who added that the school received $2.5 million from its fire insurance policy. To help cover the balance, Bassichis said, the school has embarked on a $1 million capital campaign that has included extensive letter writing.

At recent count, $750,000 had been raised from a variety of sources, including Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen; Biogen Idec Inc., a Weston-based biotechnology company; and a number of local schools and businesses.

Bassichis said Allen gave $7,500 through his foundation after a student wrote to him about the school’s situation.

“Brendan O’Halloran, a student from the school, reached out to tell us about the fire that had done so much damage to his school,’’ Allen said in a statement issued through the Celtics.

“Once we learned about the school and all the amazing programs it provides for its students we wanted to get involved. The focus of the Ray of Hope Foundation is helping youth programs, and we couldn’t think of a better way to give back than to help in their rebuilding efforts.’’

Unlike the former building, which was made out of wood, the new Fenn Center will be constructed out of steel and have a full second floor, and will provide another 2,000 square feet of space.

The replacement will also contain a number of new features, including a media room and an energy-efficient heating system.

According to Bassichis, despite the loss of the building, good feelings have lingered at the school in the past year as the community has come together to help out.

“We’ve made a ton of friends throughout this whole process and have gotten tons of support from everyone who has been involved,’’ said Bassichis. “We’ve really been blessed with all of the help we have been given. And in the end, the kids are going to get a better building than before.’’

The source of the fast-spreading fire on Dec. 23, 2009, may have been a kitchen stove turned on and briefly left alone as it heated up before a special holiday breakfast for staff members and students, Bassichis said. Ten minutes later, the building was on fire, prompting a firefighter response augmented by crews from neighboring towns to help put out the four-alarm blaze.

Despite the disruptions caused by the fire, Bassichis said, Gifford’s students are looking forward to the new building’s completion.

“They are extremely excited about everything that is going on,’’ he said.

“Last year they were forced to graduate in a tent and they couldn’t have a dance at the school last year because there was no auditorium. Now they will eventually be able to do all of the things they used to be able to do.’’

Community members say responding to the Gifford School’s time of need was an easy decision.

“Reaching out and helping take care of our neighbors is essential,’’ said Marybeth Lamb, athletic director at nearby Regis College, where Gifford students have used its gymnasium and athletic fields. “It falls right in line with what we need to do as a school, and . . . is part of our mission as a college.’’

Bassichis had high praise for his students, their parents, and the school’s staff as they patiently wait for things to return to normal.

“Despite the inconveniences everyone has faced in the past months, everyone involved has just been incredible,’’ said Bassichis.

“You would think after something like this, you would see enrollment at the school fall. But instead, everyone has just been incredibly supportive,’’ he said.

“There have been a lot of positive results that have come out of this tragedy.’’