Major Stephen Hibbs is a genuine and jovial leader of one of the larger social agencies in Wood Buffalo, The Salvation Army. Originally from a small community in northeastern Newfoundland called Tritan, Stephen and his wife Elaine have been helping people through their work with The Salvation Army for over 40 years. They have been married for 42.
Tritan, with their 1,200 souls, was a community sustained by the logging and fishing industries, located on an island. As a young person growing up in this remote part of Newfoundland, Major Hibbs was a little rough around the edges.
“I was vulgar,” he shared on the IMPACT radio show. “We only had a couple of little restaurants on the island and I wasn’t allowed in them. The owners wouldn’t let me in because I swore a lot.”
When Stephen was 22, he had a personal epiphany that he needed to change his life.
“I had an overwhelming nudging of the spirit,” he said. “It’s time now.”
He and Elaine enrolled in The Salvation Army Training College and worked their way up over the years from Cadet to Lieutenant, from Captain to Major. In everything they do, you can’t help but get the sense that they really enjoy their jobs.
“I often say that I don’t LIKE what I do; I LOVE what I do,” he said. “Making a difference in peoples’ lives changes your life.”
You can imagine the flurry of activity that happened with Stephen and Elaine on May 3rd as they ensured the safe evacuation of staff and clients. Over and above that, they were already managing their Community Response Unit which had been dispatched from the Taiga Nova fire to Fire Hall 5, as the situation south of the community worsened about midday.
“The RCMP told us that we had about a half-hour to get back to the Community Services Centre and the church to get everyone out,” said Major Hibbs.
While local staff were safely evacuating, reinforcements were immediately called up from other locations in Alberta. Major Hibbs did what he could to coordinate the response as he and his family made their way to Ruth Lake Lodge, a 6.5 hour journey in the mass congestion of vehicles moving to the safety and accommodations being offered by camps north of the community.
“It was a heart wrenching, fearful, unbelievable day,” he reflected. “The coordination of everything was phenomenal.”
The Community Response Units and their amazing volunteers were an essential support to first responders in a number of different locations during the entire fight to save our communities and during the re-entry process. Between May 3rd and June 10th, over 25,000 meals were served by The Salvation Army; at least, that was the number that was recorded. Three thousand meals were served in a single day out of two trucks. Over 7,000 volunteer hours were logged. Their presence in fire halls and mustering locations was about more than providing sustenance.
“it’s not just the sandwich; it’s the conversation and a listening year,” said Hibbs.
To best understand the impact and scale of our the services of The Salvation Army that were utilized during this extraordinary period, Major Hibbs shared a story about the day they ran out of coffee cups.
“We’re out of 10-ounce coffee cups,” he said to a local vendor.
“How many do you need?” asked the vendor.
“We need 35 thousand, at a minimum.”
“We just brought you 20 thousand a couple of days ago.”
“I know,” said Hibbs.
Volunteers, generous individuals and businesses, different levels of government and the United Way’s Fire Recovery Fund all contributed to different aspects of The Salvation Army’s efforts and their mission of providing care and sustenance during the wildfire crisis.
“One gentleman called up one day from a business outside the community,” recalled Hibbs. “He apologized for calling as he knew we were being inundated with offers of support. He said his company wanted to send up some sea cans.”
“How many do you need?” he asked.
“I said, jokingly: send me 14.”
“Within three days, 14 sea cans arrived,” said Mayor Hibbs with a smile. “This company really stepped up in a most practical, wonderful and needed way.”
Ask a first responder who was served a meal in the middle of the night, or offered a fresh cup of coffee when they were exhausted from too little sleep, what The Salvation Army’s presence meant. We’ll never know the impact of the hundreds of random conversations that happened over the counter as the Community Response Units stood vigil during some of the most dramatic hours this community has ever seen.
Mayor Hibbs and his wife are preparing to retire soon. They are very likely to stay close to the Fort McMurray area. Between children, grandchildren and other family members, they are 47 strong.
“We’re making Fort McMurray our home.”
You can listen to the entire IMPACT interview with Major Stephen Hibbs by clicking here.