It is already one of the stories which will define 2017. In December journalists will again draw attention to it and historians will document it as one of the darkest days for post-war London. Nobody will ever forget the horrific events of the early hours of June 14th when a small fire in a lower level flat in the Grenfell Tower in Kensington, took hold and spread to the rest of the building with such devastating speed. Imagine how a child caught up in the events of that early morning felt, waking from the familiarity of a night in their bed at home, only to find that familiarity replaced by the smell of hot, acrid smoke, the flickering light of flames and noises accompanying it. Today the shell of the tower stands as a blackened, burnt out vestige of its former self. Investigations into what happened and why it happened so quickly will go on for many months, but the effects of the Grenfell Tower disaster will be felt for generations to come and not only in the immediate communities affected.
It is to some in those communities that Nipperbout is now in the process of bringing relief and respite after being brought in by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It’s not a large group of youngsters that we are working with directly – their numbers are actually quite small. The number of people that our work will affect in turn though is much larger. Over the coming weeks our marvellous “Purple People” - our actors, play specialists and counsellors – are working with full Ofsted backing alongside others, to try to put smiles back on young faces, replace the nightmares they continue to suffer and heal some of the emotional wounds that have been inflicted.
One of the reasons that Nipperbout has been called in is because the local support staff who have been doing such remarkable work in caring for these families now need time themselves to rest and recover. Our respite care is providing for both the Grenfell survivors, AND those wonderful workers whose reserves of kindness and caring need some replenishing so that they can return in the autumn and carry on once more.
It is a strange emotional reaction which you feel when called upon to help out under such tragic circumstances. The professional in you reacts with “yes” in an instant, but along with that reaction comes a whirl of emotions. Of course you want to help the children – it’s almost a reflex action to want to put arms around them, hold them and tell them that everything will be alright. You want to do the exactly the same for parents as they try to come to terms with what has happened around them and struggle back to some kind of normality. The reality though is that the entire community of Grenfell Tower – of all ages, races and generations – has been desperately wounded. Families need new homes. Trauma of all kinds needs to be addressed. Broken connections need to be re-established – and all of it needs addressing right now.
Working with some of those families over the past week has given me a small insight into how they are trying to restore that normality. It hadn’t occurred to me that by being put up in hostels and hotels parents can’t cook for themselves and how difficult that can make things. One little boy I encountered has soya and dairy allergies, so restaurant food is a real risk to him. For his mum, making her own, safe food for him is almost impossible. She came to us and at first I thought she was asking if she could prepare him a little food in the tiny kitchen area we have available to us. I agreed but when she then turned up with large, full shopping bags, I realised she was intending to cook him and possibly the rest of her family a complete meal. Normally, and on the grounds of safety, I wouldn’t dream of allowing cooking where children are close by, but we quickly risk assessed things and moved a messy indoor play session outside. Mum then cooked with no children around and went off with enough safe food to feed her son for the next few days. She also went off with a sense of having returned to the normality of providing for her family, albeit something which right now is a rarity.
I am so proud of our Purple People - their help has never been more needed and all of them are so motivated to help. I cannot say that I am “happy” that Nipperbout has been approached to help – the mother in me reacted to the call before the businesswoman did and happiness was far from my first thoughts. Our call to action is to make sure that we are not only able to do the very best for people who now have so little, but to make sure that what we do is done to the very highest of Ofsted approved standards. It is too – we were ready to go into action with those standards met within a week of first being approached. There is a place for sympathy in what we are providing, but more so there’s a place for empathy. That’s because it is through empathy that we can help people find their own route to recovery.
I have no idea what will become of the twisted metal and blackened concrete of Grenfell Tower – it’s not in my sphere of influence. What I CAN help influence through Nipperbout is the gentle and sustained support that we are providing in the coming weeks. We can’t change the world, but if we can change the world for the better for just one child, then it’s worth doing…
And of that I AM happy.
image: Alastair Grant/AP