National leader of United Way visits Fort McMurray

The last few weeks have presented me with an abundance of new experiences. On July 11th, I started at the United Way as a Community Impact Planner, a summer placement position to provide real world experience to add to my learning journey. I am pursuing a public relations degree at Iowa State University and plan to work in the social profit sector after graduation. Just 9 days later I was headed to the airport to greet Dr. Jacline Nyman, President and CEO of United Way Centraide Canada, as she visited the community of Fort McMurray for the very first time. Following that, I had the pleasure of accompanying Dr. Nyman, as well as The United Way of Fort McMurray’s Executive Director Diane Shannon on a guided tour of the devastation caused by the fire.

Shock was apparent on the faces of everyone in the vehicle as we all stared in awe at some of the areas most affected by the fire, namely Abasand and Waterways. Neighbourhoods that I used to drive through to visit with friends have largely been reduced to ashes. Dr. Nyman expressed how the devastation was heartbreaking, which was something I could relate to in that moment. As we all surveyed the damage, I felt so much sadness and empathy for the people who lost their homes and belongings.


Following the tour, we attended a Workplace Campaign Chairs Committee meeting. These are volunteers from a variety of different companies that run United Way campaigns who get together on a regular basis to share ideas and updates. The upbeat atmosphere was a perfect end to a very emotional day.

The next morning, July 21st, happiness and the smell of fresh coffee filled the air as many people came together for a pancake breakfast at The Redpoll Centre. The kitchen was filled with staff, tenants, social profit leaders, and recovery committee members who mingled over good food and light conversation.


It provided a great setting for Dr. Nyman to address a cross-section of the community and bring greetings from the United Way national office.

“There’s something special about being here at this time with you in Fort McMurray,” said Dr. Nyman. “Your community is extraordinary in spirit, visually, so beautiful. And I am so sorry for the devastation that this fire has brought to your community.”


Following Dr. Nyman’s speech there was a presentation of homemade quilts. The project originated with Lee Dueck, who owns a small quilting store in Calgary. Dueck and another woman from Lethbridge began collecting quilts from people across Canada following the evacuation from Fort McMurray. Close to 1000 quilts have been collected and are being gifted to people who were affected by the fire. Quilts were presented to United Way staff members Hanna Fridhed and Maryellen Fenech, also Maryellen’s two daughters, who were among those who lost their homes. Several other members of The Redpoll Centre flock were also presented quilts. During the presentation, there was not a dry eye in the room, myself included.

To close out her Fort McMurray visit, Dr. Nyman sat down with United Way staff and media to recount her experience of seeing the fire’s destruction first-hand. She said what stuck out to her the most was the random nature of the fire.


“It’s like your own war torn city,” she explained. “[The fire] was as indiscriminate as a shooter.”

However, the silver lining in an otherwise devastating situation was the generosity of people all over Canada.

“We’ve seen generosity coast to coast. That’s what Canadians think of you, your city, and your crisis,” said Dr. Nyman.

It was truly an honour to be in the presence of such an eloquent and influential woman who is devoted to supporting the rebuilding of our great community through her work with the United Way movement.


Author: Meaghan Szpak

Meaghan has earned her degree in Public Relations from Iowa State University and has returned to work with The United Way of Fort McMurray. Her interest in the social profit sector brought her to the United Way last summer when she worked as an intern. Although she has spent the last few years in the United States, Meaghan is not new to the community of Fort McMurray and considers it home. She is excited about interacting on a daily basis with the people and agencies who give back and help make her home community a better place. In her free time Meaghan loves taking road trips, exploring new places and hiking new trails, all with her husky by her side.