Terri: In her own words

At the age of ten, fire survivor Terri Calvesbert knows what she wants, and she's loving life. In her first proper interview, she talks about boyfriends, celebrities, and trying to avoid doing her homework!

By Tracey Sparling

AT the age of ten, fire survivor Terri Calvesbert knows what she wants, and she's loving life.

In her first proper interview, she talks to TRACEY SPARLING - who first met her in hospital just days after the fire - about boyfriends, celebrities, and trying to avoid doing her homework!

NINE years ago, the world heard how a little girl from Ipswich suffered terrible injuries when fire ripped through her home as she lay sleeping.

In the swirling choking smoke of that dark November night, firefighters lifted a limp bundle from a bed.

They thought it was a child's rag doll. In fact it was little Terri Calvesbert, who went on to fight for her life in a battle which many feared was beyond her strength.

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But this little girl survived despite all the medical odds - and then faced the challenge of life living with her scars. 85 per cent of her skin had been burned, and the damage claimed her hands, feet, hair, nose and ears.

Today, the girl who is soon to celebrate her 11th birthday, has become an inspiration to many as she lives life to the full.

She jumped at the chance to be interviewed on her own for the very first time - and was soon silencing her dad Paul and his fiancé Nicky when they tried to help with the answers.

First Terri lets me in on a secret, coyly flicking the blonde curls on the new wig she loves so much.

“I've got a boyfriend but I'm not telling you his name,”

“I meet him in the playground. And no dad -” she points at her devoted dad Paul who is poised to reveal more details. “It's not who you think it is, because it's a different one from last week!”

Then she has a sudden thought, and begs me: “Please don't put in the paper where I live, because he doesn't know yet!”

It doesn't take much prompting for her to chatter on about her world, be it on the subject of boys, fashion, TV, celebrity or toys.

Terri will celebrate her 11th birthday on November 24, but I am surprised to find presents are not on her mind. Instead she struggles to think what she'd like: “I don't know. I like the furry 'real' cat. I already have a furry dog toy but the batteries ran out. I would like High School; Musical 2, but I have lots already,” she added.

I soon discover that what's really on her mind, is the pair of new prosthetic ears, and nose, which will be ready for her to wear in January. She remains deaf in one ear. Once the operation has healed she will be able to have hearing aids fitted and it is hoped she will have improved hearing for Paul's and Nicky's wedding next summer.

“My ears will be magnets, which go on here,” she said lifting a strand of her wig to show where her ears should be, “And then I'll have a new wig, to go round them.”

In the meantime she wears a temporary wig of cascading blonde curls - her 'weekend wig', and has another one to wear for school.

Terri dresses herself for school in the morning, even managing to buckle her belt, clearly relishing every scrap of independence. For years after the fire, Paul had to smother her skin with thick moisturising cream, but now she only needs it in the summer.

She strikes deals with Paul and Nicky, about what it's worth to get up at 7.15am to get ready for school. Then once her parents have tempted her out of bed, they face the problem of getting her out of the bathroom!

Stepping out of her Shakespeare Road home, everywhere Terri goes people say hello to her.

In shops around town she often hears the whisper “That's Terri Calvesbert,” or “that's that little girl”, but when people come face to face with her they can fall silent.

Others love to have a word, and Paul said: “Quite often it's groups of elderly people who come to say 'hello'. Terri really doesn't mind.”

Having met more people in her short life than many of her peers, Terri is confident and chatty.

They include many celebrities at star-studded events and awards parties who have marvelled at her courage.

“I've met Prince Charles, Tony Blair, Sarah Ferguson, Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne ,” she reeled off the names as they sprang to mind.

“And Fern and Phil on This Morning, Victor Meldrew, and Neil Buchanan from Art Attack, Paul O'Grady, Joe Pasquale, Simon Weston, Davina McCall and Neil Morrissey.

“We went to see Chittty Chitty Bang Bang in London, and Brian Connelly showed us round the car afterwards.”

But the memory of children's TV presenters Dick and Dom make an indignant Terri jump up from the sofa to tell me how they took the mickey out of her.

“When I met them they kept shouting 'bogey'! I had my picture taken with them. When I got home I saw on the picture that they had stuck two fingers up behind my head!”

But there's no getting one over on Terri - who added defiantly: “Next time I see them I will remember that, and I'll do it back to them!”

As well as Dick and Dom on CITV, Terri loves the Nick Junior channel and said: “I'm getting too old for it, but I love it. I want it on all the time!”

Her favourite films include High School Musical 1, Shrek 2, and Shark Tales, and she sings along with Nicky to classics like The Sound of Music. She also plays on the computer, and enjoys tennis and golf on Nintendo Wii.

Next year she will start high school, but first is another year at Whitehouse Junior School, where artistic subjects are her favourite.

“I like art and PE, science and literacy - but not maths,” she said.

It's no good her looking for help from Paul. She said: “Dad can't do the sums I do! I asked him a million times when I was getting really frustrated with my homework.

“If I go to hospital for a long time, my school sends me cards and pictures. I've still got the pictures they sent me last time, upstairs.

“They make me work in hospital. There's a tutor, and when they come round I can't get away. I hide in the toilets or I keep saying ''I'm going home tomorrow', so they don't give me any work to do! Or I say I'm too sleepy. Then I laugh when the rest of the children have homework to do.”

Terri's other trick is to ask to have her operations at Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, on the days the tutor is due to visit.

Her operations are performed by consultant Peter Dziewulski , who has looked after Terri since the first night she arrived at the hospital. The regular appointments for 'theatre days' don't phase this little girl, for whom anaesthetic and bandages have always been a part of life.

But between the painful times, there have also been many happy moments always with her dad at her side. The pair have enjoyed fun holidays, including a trip to see Santa Claus in Lapland in 2002, where an Evening Star photographer and I joined her in the snow.

Terri squinted her eyes up as she remembered the land of reindeer and snowmen, and cuddled closer to me on the sofa as she recalled the chill.

“I remember having a snowball fight.” she said. “And it was very cold. My hands were cold so I held your hand.”

Terri laughed at the memory of her dad being pursued by a giant monster at Disneyland in Paris, where she loved seeing characters including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and an ice skating show.

A trip to France was paid for by the Terri Calvesbert Appeal - The Evening Star's most successful fundraising campaign to date. The fund has also paid for wigs, a laptop computer, special shoes, and adaptations to make the driveway of the family home more accessible.

A spokesman for Kersey's Solicitors in Ipswich said it currently stands at £472,000, including the proceeds of investments, which grow every year.

There will be sufficient in the Terri Calvesbert Appeal for her to buy her own house when she leaves home, and already she knows the value of that security.

She said: “My dad and Nicky will come to visit, but it will be up to me and my boyfriend when they come, because we might have plans.”

Suddenly this little girl who has been through so much, is bored of answering my questions and being in the spotlight.

In the time it takes to flick of her hair over her shoulder, her attention has switched to her future.

Lost in thought, she announced: “I want to daydream now.”

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Donations made payable to the Terri Calvesbert Appeal can be sent to Jane Berry, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.

By Tracey Sparling

I first met Terri at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford soon after the fire in 1998, and that day will remain with me forever.

I'd met up with her dad Paul, a slightly-built young man not much older than myself, at the hospital entrance, and we walked back to the ward to meet Terri.

A nurse was wheeling a pushchair away up the corridor, and as she turned, Paul said simply, in his quiet voice, 'Here's Terri.'

Wrapped up under a pile of blankets in the depths of the pushchair, was a tiny bundle.

As they walked closer, I saw a pair of the bluest eyes, peering out of a face which was as yet too fragile to be photographed for the newspaper.

I remember Paul, who was exhausted at the time and sleeping at Terri's hospital bedside, had tears in his eyes as he steeled himself to explain the emotional rollercoaster the and his family were going through.

Over the next year we charted Terri's progress, as she slowly gained the energy to undergo countless operations, which had to continue as she grew and developed.

Many of us have followed Terri's story ever since, as she's grown up, moved house, and started school.

In a twist which few could have dared hope for in those darkest days, her story has transformed from tragedy, into one of infinite possibility for the future.

Despite the regular hospital visits, she's emerging to be a determined little girl, keen to voice her opinion and live life to the full.

Every time I see her, I am struck by her happiness and warmth. Against this incredible story, it seems everybody else's troubles pale into insignificance. Spend a couple of minutes in Terri Calvesbert's company and you soon forget her scars.

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