Sep
30
2016
Volume
4-5

Welcoming Residents to The Heart & Home of Wood Buffalo

(0 votes)

On June 13, 2016, just less than six weeks after a massive wildfire forced the community wide month-long evacuation of Fort McMurray, the Suncor Community Leisure Centre at MacDonald Island Park reopened its doors to the community and welcomed residents back after one of the most challenging experiences in the history of our region.

Just hours before, MacDonald Island Park had been serving as temporary accommodation for some of the hundreds of individuals who had come to the community to restore basic services to prepare for the return of the residents. Shortly prior to that, MacDonald Island Park had been a mustering point for firefighters from across the country who were in the region to battle the blaze, and until the evening of May 3 the field houses and other amenities had been bustling with local evacuees. MacDonald Island Park, long known as the “heart of the community”, had been a critical component in the firefighting efforts, protecting the safety of local residents and ensuring their safe return to the community – and with its reopening became part of the community rebuilding and recovery.

“Rebuilding is truly more than construction,” says Annette Antoniak, Chief Executive Officer of the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo (RRC) and operators of MacDonald Island Park. “Our region lost a significant number of physical structures, including homes and businesses, which was devastating enough – but the fire also threatened the strong community bonds as displaced residents were forced to seek shelter around the province and country. This month-long evacuation presented a real challenge for everyone as individuals, but also for the community as relationships were weakened by distance and the inability to connect with each other as community members need to do in order to build and develop those ties. Many people see MacDonald Island Park as a form of ‘second home’ in our community, and that is why our entire team worked so hard to reopen as quickly as possible; we felt our role would be to help to rebuild and renew those connections.”

During the evacuation, several members of the RRC team of employees, including some who lost their homes in the fire, returned early in order to maintain the building operations and ensure the facilities would be able to return to full functionality quickly when the evacuation order was lifted. Their dedication and commitment meant that when the building reopened on June 13, community members would be able to access favourite amenities such as the Syncrude Aquatic Centre.

Building operations were only one aspect of reopening to a community that had been deeply impacted by the Horse River Fire. The team at MacDonald Island Park also immediately began to develop opportunities for community members to reconnect through events and programs, such as the Scotiabank MI Summer Camps.

Traditionally, the summer camps at MacDonald Island Park begin to operate in July after school has ended, but this year to accommodate local children and youth who had seen their school year cut short, the camps began operating at the end of June, and with a new partner in Scotiabank. Through the kind generosity of Scotiabank, all children registered in the camps at both MacDonald Island Park and the Anzac Recreation Centre presented by Nexen Energy, which reopened on June 20, were able to attend summer camp free of charge.

“The youth in our community were deeply impacted by the wildfire and evacuation,” says Antoniak. 

“The Scotiabank MI Summer Camps were a chance for them to reconnect with friends while making new ones, spend time with their peers and enjoy our facilities and camp activities. It was also an opportunity for parents to deal with post-fire issues while knowing their children were safe and enjoying their return to our community.”

The return to the community was not without challenges for many residents, and the RRC felt it was important to ensure community members had opportunities to not only enjoy the amenities but participate in events designed to strengthen community bonds. On June 29, 2016, in partnership with Shaw Communications, the RRC hosted “Wood Buffalo Rocks”, an event which brought thousands of residents out to enjoy a pancake breakfast courtesy of Smitty’s Canada, and an evening event featuring a live simulcast of the Fire Aid for Fort McMurray concert being held in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

“We felt community members should have the chance to enjoy the concert without needing to leave the community they had just returned to after a long period away,” says Antoniak. “With the generous support of Shaw and other local partners, we were able to not only present the concert as a live feed on a large screen in Shell Place but also bring live entertainment to the event in the form of Brett Kissel and George Canyon, along with some local performers. Coupled with the Community Pancake Breakfast presented by Smitty’s, the event was designed as a chance for members of our community to enjoy a day of free, fun events, but also to rebuild those connections and bonds so vital to the future of our region.”

Committed to recovery and rebuilding, the RRC and the facilities at MacDonald Island Park and the Anzac Recreation Centre are dedicated to continuing their roles as strong community partners where every resident knows they have not only found the heart of the community, but also a second home within it. 

THERESA WELLS

A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.

Website: www.mcmurraymusings.com/

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