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Our playcentre burnt down on the weekend

Sarah Watkeys and her playcentre whānau are grieving the loss of their community hub. Over the weekend, a fire destroyed the Belfast Playcentre in Christchurch completely. Here she writes about the pain she and local families are going through.

We’ve just lost our playcentre. Fire.

It has been a fixture in our lives since my son was seven weeks old. It has been a fixture in the lives of many, many other preschoolers over the years. It has been a place of fun, of memories, of celebration, and of community. It is a second home for many. Now it is gone.

Fire damage at Belfast Playcentre

We joined for the community, to be able to interact with local families, and for my son to grow up with these people as friends. And for me to gain friends locally as well.

We knew we were in the right place when another child, age two at the time, helped to dress up my infant. The photo of him in a dalmatian outfit is a particularly special one.

This is the place where, as an infant, he loved to empty the shelves of toys. More recently, it’s been the puzzle shelf that has been emptied. I have finished many jigsaws as a result.

This is the place where my son looked at the boys three years older than him, and thought “I’m going to do what they’re doing.” And he has been learning to do exactly that. From riding trikes at speed, to climbing the fort and going head first down the slide, to jumping off the cable barrels onto a gym mat, he has been achieving the goals he has set for himself. More recently, he’s been trying to work out how to ride a scooter and a balance bike that are both much too big for him. They don’t design those for toddlers a year and a half old.

This is the place where he watched older children play in the autumn leaves, before confidently joining in.

This is the place where he proudly showed me his first painting. Our centre’s tradition is to pin the first painting to the wall. Of course, these are now gone.

We do have a photo of my sons first painting, before we washed it off the bathroom door. His second, third and fourth paintings were washed off the floor, the easel, and me. We did eventually get one on paper, and proudly pinned it next to the others.

I just wish I’d taken a photo.

This is the place where he discovered the joy of obstacle courses. There are times it has taken me every ounce of willpower I possess to simply let him. Watching one’s toddler walk along a two foot high balance beam is not easy.

This is the place where we celebrated his first birthday. And many, many other birthdays for many, many other children. This is the place of celebration of newborn arrivals.

The day we lost our playcentre was another child’s fifth birthday party. There had been a pot of oil on the stove, ready to cook with. There were two adults supervising it when it caught fire. They did everything right, from evacuating the children, to using the fire blanket and fire extinguisher, and calling 111. They managed to put it out.

It reignited.

Fire damage at Belfast Playcentre

The fire extinguisher was empty.

They had to get out. There was nothing they could do. Except get out and watch.

Two adults were treated for smoke inhalation, but no other injuries. Not physical injuries anyway.

People cannot be replaced, and their lives have far more value than everything else in the building.

Most things can be replaced. We lost profile books. We lost first paintings. But the rest is replaceable.

In addition to the wonderful fire crew, and the support of friends and family, we have had incredible support from the Canterbury Playcentre Association. They are organising insurance and Ministry of Education paperwork, and have already found us a venue for the next term at least.

And this is the heart of Playcentre.

Looking after one another.

We are community.

We are family.

No fire could ever destroy the heart.

But our tears still fall.

Sarah Watkeys is a permanently exhausted mum to one very active wriggler. She’s also a triathlete, writer, and student of te reo. 

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