SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Eleven years’ worth of documents, lesson plans, fitness tools, photos and treasured memories — all gone up in smoke.
Nonprofit organization Childhood Obesity Prevention and Education, or COPE, was one of the businesses destroyed by the Tuesday morning blaze that ripped through Sandfly Market Place and adjacent offices off Ferguson Avenue.
Founding executive director Sandy Baker tells WSAV NOW that she was out of town the day the fire ruined her studio.
She says Kristi Como, who owns the now-destroyed Nonstop Fitness next door to COPE, texted her what happened.
“Later, [Kristi] said, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s a total loss for everybody,’” Baker recalled about receiving the gut-wrenching update.
After arriving back in Savannah Tuesday evening, she saw firsthand the devastation — and the tears came.
“It’s all burned up,” she said.
“It’s that loss of, ‘what’s my routine?’ and ‘what do I do next?’” Baker shared as she stood in front of the building’s charred remains.
“I think about, ‘well, we can use this for the program’ — no, it’s here,” she said, gesturing behind her. “Even some of my stuff from home — nope, it’s here. So, rebuilding is the key, but can we all do that?”
Baker says the office space for her organization, which she estimates has helped anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000 children over the years, was uninsured.
“Every bit of money that we had went into programs, into the students and the families, and with our produce distribution, into the community, so nobody took a salary; it was all a passion from the heart to serve,” Baker said.
She said when considering insurance, she figured she wouldn’t have to worry about a fire or burglaries because “it’s a family community.”
The worst that Baker expected were hurricanes, which the nonprofit had endured before — but nothing like this.
“We have liability insurance for our programming, but I thought, ‘that’s a place I can save some money for the programs,’” Baker said. “It was the wrong decision, but it’s one that I made. I’m the only one responsible for it, so yeah, stings a little bit.”
The damages, she adds, likely add up to around $20,000.
All of COPE’s coaching, psychology and eating books in the lending library reserved for children and families are gone.
“We had a lot of resource books that we could pull from talking about self-esteem, cognitive behavioral therapy and teen behaviors, that kind of thing,” Baker said.
Other items COPE lost: fitness supplies for the children, tools for arts and crafts and the signage that helped the community recognize the nonprofit each time they appeared at a local event.
“There’s nothing that we have that we could go and even do a health event now because our tables were in there, our banners were in there,” Baker said.
‘We’re going to come back bigger and stronger‘
Georgia ranks eighth in the nation for high obesity rates in children aged 10 to 17, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
COPE says Savannah’s high poverty rates have also contributed to being overweight.
Helping children combat obesity has been a cause that’s near and dear to Baker’s heart, she shares.
“I started COPE because I was one of those kids, just like the kids who are overweight, and no matter what they do, it just doesn’t seem to help,” Baker said. “Then they get bullied and they believe terrible things about themselves.”
For a brief moment following the fiery disaster, she told her board of directors that she thought about calling it quits.
“They all came back with, ‘oh no, we’re going to come back bigger and stronger,’” Baker said. “I’m really depending on their strength right now.”
COPE is also calling on the community for help in rebuilding.
The organization has started a GoFundMe campaign of their own, asking for financial support up to $15,000.
So far, it has raised over $1,300.
“If we can at least duplicate the necessary supplies for the programs that we already have going on, then we can get back in there and continue,” Baker said.
“[We] hope the community will see that COPE is necessary and vital and a help, either through our Eat Fresh and Free produce distribution that we’ve been for three years, that we can start back at the schools, or perhaps it’s the entire COPE curriculum that really changed somebody’s perspective about their own health,” Baker said.
Even in the midst of heartbreak over her destroyed office space, she offers encouraging words to fellow business owners in the same boat.
“Hang in there, because we’re in it together,” Baker said. “We’re not going to leave any one of us behind, each one of us has a network of supporters underneath and the only way we can do anything really is together.”