Ipswich: Brave Terri Calvesbert prepares for her next step as she leaves school

Terri Calvesbert is preparing to leave school and start a course at Otley College. Pictured with dad

Terri Calvesbert is preparing to leave school and start a course at Otley College. Pictured with dad Paul

SHE has overcome challenge after challenge in the face of extreme adversity – but today Terri Calvesbert is a young woman with a bright future.

Terri Calvesbert is preparing to leave school and start an animal studies course at Otley College

Terri Calvesbert is preparing to leave school and start an animal studies course at Otley College

The smiling teenager is preparing for the next step in her life – leaving school... “and then home”, dad Paul chips in.

Baby Terri before the fire broke out in November 1998

Baby Terri before the fire broke out in November 1998

The 16-year-old’s last day at Westbourne Sports College will be wrought with mixed emotions, she said.

Terri with dad Paul and her doctor Peter Dziewalski at the Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford where s

Terri with dad Paul and her doctor Peter Dziewalski at the Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford where she has been treated throughout her life

While for most teens it is a day they look forward to from the age of 11, for Terri, school has provided her with a caring and familiar constant during a challenging childhood.

Beaming with pride, dad Paul said he never thought he would see the day his daughter started school, let alone take her GCSEs, go to her school prom and embark on a further education course.

The odds were stacked against the helpless 23-month-old when a fire broke out in her bedroom in November 1998, just days before her second birthday, started by a cigarette her mum left close to her cot.

Savage burns scarred her, covering 90% of her tiny body – her face, scalp, neck, chest, back, both arms and legs – leaving doctors and the firefighters who plucked her from the inferno, doubting whether she could survive the trauma.

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But her strength of character shone through even at such a young age, and the tot fought to survive.

And today she is preparing to take on her next challenge – an animal studies qualification at Otley College.

“When I was younger I wanted to work in a hospital helping people, or as an ambulance driver,” she said.

“I think it’s because I spent so much time at Broomfield Hospital when I was little.

“Then I decided I wanted to work with children and then I realised animals would be easier to work with than kids.

“It is fairly scary, leaving school. I will miss it, I have always enjoyed school.

“We have our school prom to look forward to before it all ends, I can’t wait. I already have my dress sorted.

“I have made some great friends through school, they have always looked out for me.

“Kids can be mean but I can cope with them, it’s reactions from adults that is harder – they should know better.”

While devoted dad Paul and wife Nicky, who he married five years ago, dote on Terri, growing up has been hard.

She has already faced more in her 16 years than most people have to deal with in a lifetime.

“I am a young woman now,” she added. “Growing up has been difficult at times, it was harder when I was younger when it was just me and dad.

“It’s hard as a girl to talk to your dad about some things, so when dad met Nicky things got a bit easier for me.”

Paul, speaking at the family home in Shakespeare Road, added: “It hasn’t all been plain sailing.

“She is a teenager, and like all teenagers she’s had her moments.

“Nicky came along just at the right time, they get on so well, it is very special.

“Seeing her leave school is a huge deal for me and Nicky, I am so proud of her, we both are.

“I never thought I would see her start school let alone get to this stage. The next step is leaving home.

“In the early days I never thought I would see Terri grow up but she is a real fighter.

“She has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Before taking on her new challenge, Terri is looking forward to her summer holidays and the burns camp she has been going to for the last 10 years.

The camps, held in the UK and one this summer in South Africa, have provided vital support to Terri.

“We have all faced similar things,” she added. “As I have got older I have found I can help the younger kids. Sharing what you have been through helps. You realise you’re not the only one.”

Terri is still left with questions over her ordeal. The 16-year-old said she knows “some of what happened to me”.

For Paul, every moment of the horrific fire is etched forever in his memory.

“It happened at about 7.30pm on November 21,” he recalled. “I was on my way back from work.

“I remember it like it was yesterday.”

Terri added: “I know some of what happened, but not the full story. I don’t know if I will ever know the full story.

“I think I have dealt with it and I am moving on.”

Last year Terri’s mum Julie Minter spoke out about the fire and admitted she is consumed with guilt.

Despite a brief attempt at reconciliation, Terri and her mum no longer have any contact.

“I tried,” said Terri. “But it didn’t work out. I have moved on.

“I am looking forward.”

Terri’s future is bright and full of promise. She wants to continue working with young burns victims through her role as ambassador of the charity The Healing Foundation.

And as she approaches adulthood, her own healing process will continue.

At the age of 18, doctors at the specialist Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, have said they can begin the process of rebuilding Terri’s face.

Various operations will see medics reconstruct her nose, a procedure that requires they wait until her face has fully grown.

“I don’t want my head to get any bigger between now and then,” Terri jokes. “I don’t really know how I feel about it.

“At the moment I’m not really too bothered but I’m sure I’ll think about it more nearer the time.”

Half a million thank yous

In the aftermath of the horrific blaze Star readers rallied to help.

A fund set up in Terri’s name was launched with the aim of raising around £5,000 to help contribute to her upbringing. Dad Paul said he was “overwhelmed” when that amount was raised in the first day alone.

Today the fund stands at more than £500,000 – a staggering figure which has left Paul and Terri speechless.

“It is almost impossible to put into words how I feel,” said Terri. “I am blown away, people are very kind. It is a huge amount, I am shocked. People continue to donate and in this economic climate, that is very humbling.

“The fund was Nigel’s (Pickover, former Star editor) idea, if it weren’t for him it would never have happened. We are so grateful.”

“There are so many people to thank,” added Terri. “Thank you to everyone who has donated. And thank you to the firemen, red watch at Princes Street – I still see some of them now.

“And to all the doctors and nurses, especially Peter Dziewulski, who left his wife in labour when it first happened to come and treat me, more thank yous, I can’t say it enough, if it weren’t for them and the firemen I wouldn’t be here today.”

A mystery helper

For years one anonymous person donated money each month to the Terri Calvesbert fund.

“He donated money every month for years,” said Paul.

“From day one he supported the fund. He obviously set up a direct debit, but we have never found out who he was.

“We are trying to trace him, I don’t know if he is still alive but we want to thank him.”

– Do you know the mystery donor? Write to Paul c/o Lizzie Parry at Ipswich Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email lizzie.parry@archant.co.uk