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Arkansas State Police Sgt. Mike Dawson (right) discusses the fire that destroyed the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center in Little Rock with ASP Cpl. Josh Berry on May 21. (Aprille Hanson photo) A charred ultrasound machine donated in 2014 by the Knights of Columbus sits among debris from the May 20 Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center fire. (Aprille Hanson photo) Lori Wilbur prays the rosary as her son Solomon, 7, rest his head against her. She along with her husband Lee, vice president of the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center board of directors, organized a rosary outside the center, less than 24 hours after it burned down. (Aprille Hanson photo) Lee Wilbur, vice president of the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center board of directors, reads the rosary mysteries from his phone, leading the prayers in front of the burned center. (Aprille Hanson photo)

Pentecost fire destroys pregnancy resource center

Not arson, but total loss of Little Rock agency headquarters

Published: May 26, 2018      
Aprille Hanson
Lee Wilbur, vice president of the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center board of directors, leads a rosary May 21, less than 24 hours after an accidental fire burned down the center’s rented offices.

As flames shot up from the Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center in Little Rock on Sunday evening, May 20, executive director Nicole Lashbrook admitted she was “a little shaken,” but her and other staffers quickly turned to prayer.

“We prayed and realized this is Pentecost Sunday, there’s symbolism in that. The Holy Spirit is among us. This is a rebirth and we’re going to use this as an opportunity,” Lashbrook said on the morning of May 21.

Little Rock Fire Department spokesman Capt. Doug Coffman said the resource center, along with two other offices in the  same building, was a total loss after an accidental fire.

“They had workers up on the roof working and that’s where the fire started,” he said, adding, “It was not arson.”

“We prayed and realized this is Pentecost Sunday ... This is a rebirth and we’re going to use this as an opportunity.” Nicole Lashbrook, executive director of Arkansas Pregnancy Resource Center

The pro-life center is also known as St. Joseph’s Helpers, the ministry arm of the nonprofit, and helps provide support to pregnant women. Across the street from the abortion clinic in Little Rock, the center serves as an abortion alternative and support for women.

Firefighters were dispatched at 6:42 p.m. to find “the whole roof was on fire,” Coffman said, adding that it was “too dangerous to go in” given that no one was in the building. Firefighters left around 10 p.m.

Less than 24 hours after the fire, Lee Wilbur, vice president of the center’s board of directors,  was leading a rosary against the backdrop of twisted metal and charred remains, a distinct smoke smell still wafting from the burnt debris.

“We felt this lightening of our spirits,” after the initial shock of arriving at the fire the night before, Wilbur said. “We were talking about renovations of our space because we have this dramatic expansion (plan) in the next 30 years and in order to meet those needs of expansion, we need to change our space and we may even need additional space … This is a weird answered prayer,” he added, to laughter from the crowd.

The center has rented a space in the building since 2009, paying $3,822 a month in rent not including utilities, Lashbrook said. The space is fully insured and all data records were backed up digitally.

One of the most significant items lost in the fire was a $25,000 ultrasound machine, donated in 2014 by three Knights of Columbus councils, procured through the national Knights of Columbus Ultrasound Initiative. A scorched exam table and the heavily damaged ultrasound machine peeked out amid the piles of rubble.

Other medical equipment, laptops, educational materials, new furniture recently donated and diapers, clothes and other baby items in the “mommy store,” were destroyed, Lashbrook said.

Marc Rios, member of Knights Council 16947 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, spearheaded the ultrasound donation effort four years ago while deputy grand knight of another council.

“It was devastating,” he said, adding his wife Tracy volunteered several years and previously was the office manager on staff.

The Stork Bus, a mobile medical unit that has an ultrasound machine and other equipment allowing the center to operate anywhere, was not parked at the center during the fire. It was donated Oct. 9 also through a Knights fundraising initiative.

“We draw comfort from that. I know they’ll come back stronger than ever,” Rios said.

On June 14, Lashbrook is still scheduled to speak at a Pax Christi Little Rock meeting at St. John Center at 7:30 p.m. about the ministry, with donations collected going toward the center.

The multi-parish “Baby Bottle” donations, a pro-life money-raising campaign for state pregnancy recourse centers, has not been collected and was not in the building, Lashbrook said. 

What “hurts the most,” she said, was the loss of the chapel and a special St. Joseph statue.

“We prayed every morning … It was just the place to go to when the battle gets hard,” she said.

But despite the loss, Lashbrook was optimistic about plans for growth.

The center has gotten positive feedback on the mobile medical unit and has been asked to expand their medical outreach, including more sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing for men and women, providing sex education in schools and other education in the community.

“We trust in God in all of this to lead us through this tragedy and find the grace in all we do,” Lashbrook said. “We need people to support us now more than ever.”

Though Lashbrook said “a lot of people have been generous” about offering space for the center, she will speak with donors and work with board members on a plan moving forward.

“We’re bigger than four walls. We’re a ministry; God’s got this,” she said.

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