Jack Knox: TC book drive helps to rebuild the heart of Hornby after fire

Jack Knox mugshot genericDoug Chinnery didn’t freak out when his pager interrupted his wee-hours sleep.

Calls like this — an activation alert from a fire alarm in Hornby Island’s school — usually meant a spider had triggered the device’s sensor, something like that.

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Except when the island’s fire chief neared the school that August night, a telltale orange glow backlit the treetops. Not just a fire, but a big one. “It’s terrifying when you see that,” Chinnery says.

The fire department was quick to arrive, but because the blaze began on the outside of the school and worked its way in, the building had been burning for maybe 45 minutes before the alarm went off. The office, staff room and foyer had been consumed.

Good thing many of the dozen or so volunteer firefighters who turned out were familiar with the structure.

“We have firefighters on our crew who were in the first class when they built the school,” Chinnery notes. They knew where the load-bearing walls were, knew the nooks and crannies.

Still, it took the help of five firefighters from neighbouring Denman Island, hauled across Lambert Channel by ferry workers who were themselves roused in the middle of the night, to quell the flames. The great relief was that, at the end of a tinder-dry summer, the fire didn’t spread to the forest.

The school itself was a goner, though. A 25-year-old man, a troubled guy, was soon charged with arson.

That was a year and a half ago. It has taken that long for Florette MacLean to bring herself to visit the gutted hulk of Hornby Island Community School.

“I didn’t even look at the burnt carcass until last week,” says MacLean, the school’s clerk-librarian. She had spent five years tending the collection like a garden, only to see every single book written off. All had been saturated with toxic fumes when the light fixtures melted.

You have to understand that for a small, away-from-it-all place like Hornby, a summer tourist mecca with just 1,000 permanent residents, the school is the community’s heart. So, yes, when the building burned on Aug. 26, 2018 – the night before teachers were due to return to prepare for the coming year — it staggered the island.

“It was really quite traumatic,” MacLean said Wednesday, standing in one of the modular units that were eventually shipped in to house the K-7 school’s 40 students after the fire.

The unit she’s in houses the rebuilt book collection, which in 2022 will be shifted to a new school that is to be built on the site of the soon-to-be razed old one.

The reborn library is a work in progress. Insurance covered much of the cost. MacLean scrounged cushions from Hornby’s free store to give students something comfy to sit on. Residents donated 3,000 books, some appropriate, some not, but all appreciated.

“They wanted to keep the kids reading,” MacLean says. “It was wonderful how good people were.” She points to a selection of volumes passed on by a Toronto book reviewer who summers on Hornby.

Gaps remain, though. “We’re still figuring out where the holes are,” MacLean says. Holes that will cost money to fill.

That’s why she was happy to receive a cheque from the Times Colonist Literacy Fund this week. It will allow her library to regain some of what it lost.

The Hornby school’s literacy fund grant is just one of 180 awarded this month. A total of almost $300,000 is being distributed, with most of the money coming from the Times Colonist’s annual book sale, augmented by donations from the likes of the Golf for Kids tournament and the Masonic lodge on the Saanich Peninsula. More than a third comes from an Education Ministry pool that tops up community fundraising efforts such as the book sale.

All grants go to literacy and education programs on Vancouver Island. Recipients range from the Victoria Literacy Connection, which tutors some of those in the greatest need of help, to the Learning Disabilities Association of B.C., which gives struggling kids the help they need to keep their heads above water, and the Mustard Seed Street Church, whose Fair Start program provides backpacks full of school supplies for families that can’t afford them.

Most of the grants go to schools themselves, though, to educators who are often over-the-top excited to get the funding that will buy the tools they need to help their students. That’s everything from age-appropriate remedial-reading resources to materials that encourage family literacy. Often the grants represent all the discretionary spending available to the recipients — teachers and school librarians who are, frankly, the best judges of what their kids need.

School libraries were the target when the Times Colonist’s book sale began in 1998. You know how it goes: readers donate used books that volunteers sort for resale, with all the money going to literacy. Over the past 22 years, a total of $5.6 million has been distributed.

We thank you, the readers, for that. So does Florette MacLean.

Save the date

Mark your calendar: Here are the dates for the 2020 Times Colonist Book Drive.

• The two-day drive-through book dropoff will go from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 25 and 26.

• The sale itself will be May 9 and 10.

• Both the book drop and sale are at the Victoria Curling Club at 1952 Quadra St.

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