As we arrive at the sixth month anniversary of the evacuation of Fort McMurray, the United Way is pleased to report that the generosity of Canadians, Albertans and residents of Wood Buffalo is hard at work in the community. About $3.75 million dollars was pledged through the United For Fort McMurray campaign and the Fire Aid for Fort McMurray concert, about $1 million of which has already been invested, committed or is under review. These funds are supporting a wide range of agencies in their efforts to recover and respond to post-fire realities.
Hundreds of kids were able to attend summer camps this summer thanks to this generosity. Over 3,000 backpacks filled with school supplies were given to students. Outreach took place to vulnerable citizens like seniors, mobility challenged and those who suffer from chronic illnesses. Initiatives were funded that provided social connections to both youth and seniors.
“These donated dollars have made a real impact,” said Tony Mankowski, President of the United Way Board. “Remember, that these are still early days. The recovery is going be happening for quite some time to come. We’ve made great progress in mindfully investing funds that have come in from across Canada. Those dollars will be critical as we continue to rebuild and recover in the months to come.”
The Redpoll Centre has been an essential social profit hub since re-entry in June. Administrative space was provided to a number of displaced organizations and the meeting rooms have hosted social recovery task force meetings, community wellness and resiliency committee meetings, wellness workshops, and even a visit with Premier Rachel Notley.
“We were pleased to welcome groups like Fort McMurray Minor Hockey, Youth Soccer and the Multicultural Association when they needed somewhere to work on a temporary basis,” said Diane Shannon, Executive Director. “Countless committee meetings, wellness workshops and conversations have happened in our shared space centre that have contributed to the great work that has happened in our community since re-entry.”
Member Agencies are a big part of the story of the evacuation, re-entry and recovery of our community. They were looking after clients as the situation on the ground on May 3rd escalated. Some of our most vulnerable citizens were helped to safety by dedicated personnel working with agencies, often putting their clients’ care and safety ahead of their own. After ensuring the safe evacuation of their staff, member agencies shifted their focus to keeping track of clients and planning their return to full operations.
Funded by United Way, the 211 community information system was an essential link to answers for citizens, including those with language barriers. With 24/7 service in over 200 languages, 211 operators provided a vital information service at a time when people needed it most.
“There are moments in your life when hearing a friendly and helpful voice on the other end of the line is going to be more effective than finding the answers online,” said Diane Shannon. “The chaos and uncertainty during and after evacuation from Fort McMurray is a great example of when that human connection is going to make a huge difference. The United Way movement across Canada has made a significant investment in 211 because it is a bridge to those who desperately need it.”
The United Way has been a key contributor to a number of different committees focusing on recovery, including the Social Recovery Task Force, of which Diane Shannon is Chair. Made up of a broad cross range of sub-sectors, this dedicated group are working together to generate collective impact around the recovery and rebuild of our social infrastructure, stretching from education to health, mental wellness to supports for seniors and those living with barriers.
“One of the initiatives we have worked on in the months following evacuation and re-entry is the Path Card,” said Shannon. “This shared referral approach allows those experiencing hardship to only have to go through the intake process once. They get a Path Card that will allow them to access supports from a number of different agencies participating in the program.”
A Community Partnerships Table has also been established, co-chaired by Melanie Soler of the Canadian Red Cross and John Evans from the United Way. This group is comprised of stakeholders including government, social profit, and indigenous representation working to review large funding requests through the Red Cross’s Community Partnership Program and the United Way’s Fire Recovery Fund.
“The spirit of collaboration in making sure we invest donated dollars effectively is alive and well,” said John Evans. “We are taking an open and transparent approach to avoid funding duplication and maximize impact. It is proving to be a great model that is allowing us to be nimble and responsive.”
The United Way has had the pleasure of helping to facilitate distribution of donated items that have come from all over Canada and the U.S.
“There has been an unparalleled interest in helping our community recover,” said Shannon. “This generosity has come in many forms including handmade quilts, knitted items, flowers, backpacks and so much more. We’re also working with our community partners to set-up a donated goods distribution warehouse. This work has been happening from a facility in Edmonton operated by ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency), but that contract with the provincial government is coming to an end. An investment from our Fire Recovery Fund will support an interim donations management warehouse while a more permanent facility is set up.”
United Way staff have been involved in many aspects of recovery, while still carrying on the regular work of the organization. Beth McLaws moved into the role of Fire Recovery Projects Coordinator shortly after United Way resumed operations at The Redpoll Centre in June. Executive Director Diane Shannon has dedicated the bulk of her time to recovery efforts. Russell Thomas has facilitated a number of therapeutic painting workshops benefiting several hundred citizens.
“We have had to be responsive to the reality of our community during this recovery period,” said Diane Shannon. “This is new territory for all of us, but there is a willingness to collaborate and roll up our sleeves to do the hard work that is required. I’m enormously proud of my staff for their dedication and willingness to adapt, particularly those who suffered complete losses themselves during the fire.”
While the work of recovery will be ongoing for some time, the regular work of United Way is happening, including the annual Community Campaign. At the 6-month mark post-fire, the Community Campaign is nearing its completion.
“One of our industry partners said it best,” said Colin Hartigan, 2016 Community Campaign Chair. “Considering what this community has gone through, with both the fire and the economy, it is astounding that we’re counting donations in the millions of dollars.”
Just over $5 million has been pledged to date, with Suncor and Syncrude both eclipsing $2 million in their workplace campaigns.
According to Hartigan, the focus this year has been on need.
“Instead of referring to it as the $8 million goal, we have been saying it’s the $8 million need. In light of everything that has happened in the community this year, that need is going to be greater than ever. We’re going to keep pushing forward until the end of the year because we know every dollar is going to make a difference.”
The work of United Way never stopped during the fire, evacuation and re-entry. Staff mobilized immediately, regrouping at work locations donated in various centres, including the United Way offices in Edmonton. Support from United Way affiliates was offered immediately, and resulted in the creation and launch of the United for Fort McMurray donation portal just a few days after the fire. That support from our partners across Canada, particularly in Alberta, has been amazing.
Six months ago today, we awoke to a bright and sunny day. All seemed right with the world. One shift of wind, and optimal conditions, turned a perfect day into a raging inferno. Something beyond our control completely interrupted our lives, and in thousands of cases, destroyed or damaged precious homes and businesses. All of a sudden, an entire community needed help. Of course, our wildfire was an extreme event, but life-altering events happen all the time and that is why we exist: to support agencies who are there when we need them. We have been here for 38 years doing that kind of work, and we’ll be here long into the future.
On a closing note, we feel so much gratitude for the people who reached out to us and offered support, kind words, donations and so much more during this year. Our resilience and determination to rebuild and recover is emboldened by every single individual, organization and business who has offered help. Thank you.