Answering his phone at 3 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2016, Dion White just heard a couple of words from the caller: “Fire” and “JCI.”
Minutes later, White — chief executive officer of Center for Life Resources, which operates Janie Clements Industries (JCI) at 3401 Milam — was driving toward the burning facility, hoping “maybe it’s not that bad.”
But when White got closer, he saw an orange hue in the dark sky. “Aw, man,” White groaned as his heart sank.
That was then.
What a difference 21 months makes.
White related the story of the fire Monday afternoon to a large group of guests who gathered for a joyful rededication and ribbon cutting in the rebuilt facility. Inside the large, clean building, there was no hint of the fire — caused by a malfunction in the water heater — that destroyed the interior.
White thanked the guests — whose numbers included Brownwood and Early chamber of commerce ambassadors, community leaders, first responders, Center for Life Resources representatives and business partners and members of Janie Clements’ family — for showing up for “this awesome day.”
“It’s a celebration for what we do, because we help people with their lives,” White said. “They don’t see us as staff. They see us as friends and family members.”
JCI was founded in 1972 as a vocational training center for individuals with physical and mental disabilities, JCI’s website states. One of the organization’s founders was Janie Clements. For nearly 50 years, the website states, JCI “has given these individuals a chance to achieve their dreams of obtaining and maintaining steady employment.”
When asked if those who work at JCI are referred to as clients, White said he prefers to avoid labels. “I always say ‘the folks,’” White said. “Just the folks who come here and get services every day.”
“The folks” have the opportunity to earn money as well as learn job skills as JCI partners with local schools for vocational skills training, the JCI website states.
JCI has contracts with vendors, and individuals are paid to perform tasks including packaging, assembly and document destruction, White said earlier.
Brownwood firefighters were among first responders who attended the Monday’s rededication. White thanked firefighters for the job they did the morning of the fire. “When we were at our darkest hours — literally it was night time when that fire was going — you all stepped in there like real heroes and took care of that,” White said.
After firefighters extinguished the blaze, there was little evidence of the fire on the metal building’s exterior. But the cavernous interior was blackened and gutted, all its contents ruined.
“When I got here I realized how bad it was, and so from that day I was devastated,” White said.
“I get emotional. It was just real sad to think about all the services that we do here and the legacy of what this program has done for some many people, and just to see it burn …”
But after the “long night” ended and the sun came up, White said, he realized it had been a blessing that the fire happened when it did, with no one inside, no one in wheelchairs who would have been put in even more danger.
“It would’ve been even more devastating,” White said. “So I give thanks to God nobody was here during that time. So through these actions, we came out stronger. We’re keeping Janie Clements’ legacy, her memory, alive.”
After the ribbon cutting, White said the day represents “the end of a long journey that was very difficult, emotional … the reason I’m so emotional is because I know what we do, and what we do is help other people. All of us working together were abel to keep that very, very important mission going forward, which is making a difference in folks’ lives.”
Keys to rebuilding included insurance coverage and “lots of meetings” dealing with budgets and finances, learning about structures and code and “trying to stretch the dollars,” White said.