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United for Fort McMurray

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Three months ago, unbelievably hot and dry conditions created a perfect fire storm in Fort McMurray and led to the evacuation of the entire city.  While there are similarities, everyone’s perspective of what happened during those harrowing hours is completely unique.  Stories have been told and retold.  In fact, each interaction adds new dimensions to this life-changing experience.

Two months ago, re-entry began and the community started to re-establish itself.  Some of our United Way staff were among those who came back in the first days of re-entry.  We were in The Redpoll Centre in the second week of June and open for business by the 13th. 

This milestone begs the question:  Where is the United Way three months after the evacuation?

On the one hand, we are super engaged with several of the committees that have been struck to take a collaborative approach to the recovery work.  Our Executive Director, Diane Shannon, chairs the inter-agency fire recovery committee that includes representation from governments, the Canadian Red Cross, and other essential social profit and community partners.  This group will also play an essential role in providing information for the funding allocation process on a number of different fronts.

Speaking of funding, with the help of United Way partners across Canada, we jumped into action mere days after evacuation to launch a fundraising campaign and website called United for Fort McMurray.  Online donations and special fundraising events combined to raise about $1-million.  A further $2-million was raised during the Fire Aid for Fort McMurray concert at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on June 29th.

It has been amazing to see the outpouring of support from all corners of Canada in the form of personal donations and fundraising events.  It is clear that that the Fort McMurray fire generated concern and compassion in an historic way. 

Commemorative prints of the painting of Fire Chief Darby Allen, generously donated by Run Digital Inc. in Calgary, were offered to all individuals and companies that donated $100 or more to the United for Fort McMurray effort.  A good portion of those prints have been delivered to generous donors in communities across Canada and some in the United States.  Donors who gave at the $1,000 or higher level will be getting their commemorative prints after a special first responder signing ceremony slated for mid-November.

“These donated dollars are specifically designated to fire recovery,” said Diane Shannon.  “These funds will help charities and nonprofit organizations with fire related impacts and the creation of new programs and services specifically addressing an element of our post-fire reality.”

Working closely with partners on the inter-agency fire recovery committee, funding recommendations will be made based on a collective understanding of the needs and gaps.  There is a commitment to work together to ensure that this money is invested in our community in the best possible way, with as little duplication as possible and with maximum transparency and impact.

John Evans is the Chair of our Community Investment Committee, the group of volunteers that helps guide the allocation decision making progress for our community fund.  He has been actively involved from the very beginning of this process and has noted considerable progress in how the various agencies are working together.

“This is not an us and them scenario,” he said.  “There is a ‘we are all in this together’ mentality that just keeps getting stronger as we go along.  We want to get money in the hands of agencies and nonprofits that need it, but we’re committed to doing so in a way that is both transparent and accountable.  We need to carefully steward these dollars that came to us from across the country, and in some cases, around the world.”

As one of the first facilities to get back online, The Redpoll Centre - a capacity building program of the United Way - has provided space to a number of different organizations. 

“We have been able to use The Redpoll Centre in the exact way that it was envisioned:  as a gathering place for like-minded organizations to work and collaborate,” said Diane.  “As an example, Fort McMurray Minor Hockey Association and the Fort McMurray Youth Soccer Association are with us while they await the return and restoration of their regular facilities.  We’ve also been able to be a meeting place for groups like Canadian Mental Health Association, Waypoints, The Canadian Red Cross and others.”

One of the success stories of this post-fire recovery period is the fact that all 30 of our member agencies are back up and running.  Most are well on the way to being fully operational, some have been able to add programs and services related to the fire recovery.  Understandably, there have been human resource and operational impacts from the evacuation.  However, the sector is working together to ensure that the social infrastructure of our community is in place.

“We are in this unique situation of having to focus on two major streams of work,” said Diane Shannon.  “On the one hand, we are collaborating with our community partners to ensure that the fire recovery donations make their way to local programs and services so they can help people.  On the other hand, we are getting ready to move into our regular campaign that replenishes our community fund on an annual basis.  These are two separate and distinct funding streams.  The fire recovery dollars have largely come from outside the community and will focus on impacts from this disaster.  The funds raised during the community campaign largely come from residents within Wood Buffalo and support the work that our agencies do to help people all the time.”

While the work of recovery continues, our Workplace Campaign Chairs have been looking to the future and planning this fall’s community campaign.  These volunteers who work with companies around the region and lead United Way campaigns in the workplace all experienced the fire and evacuation in some way.  A phrase that kept popping up during meetings held throughout the summer was “This is home”.  Despite all the challenges we have faced as a community, first with the fires, then with the evacuation period and the flooding in late July, there is a pervasive sense of home.  It is a feeling that is rooted in community pride and a resilient spirit.

Plans are in the works for a community campaign launch and a 10-week fundraising effort to replenish our community fund.

“It is important to understand the importance of the community campaign,” said Colin Hartigan, Community Campaign Chair for 2016. 

“The money we raise each fall supports agencies that do vital work for our community every single day, providing hope, help and support to residents who need it.  Those needs are going to be bigger than ever in 2017 and we need to do everything we can to ensure that the community fund is ready.”

In a single afternoon, over 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray went from having a roof over our heads to being evacuees.  It was a harrowing experience escaping the flames, enduring hours on the road, and being without food or water longer than most of us have ever experienced before.  We found ourselves on the receiving end of care, compassion, and unparalleled generosity.  People, organizations and communities were there for us when when we needed it most.

In a sense, this is what the United Way movement is all about, and what The United Way of Fort McMurray has been doing in this community for over 35 years.  The circumstances might be different, but individuals and families have things that pop up in their lives every single day that create unexpected hardships, suffering, fear, anxiety, and loss.  Each year, we reach out during our Community Campaign to replenish our funds so that we can continue supporting agencies, programs and initiatives that provide that helping hand when it is so desperately needed.

Remember the feeling of uncertainty when you heard that the entire city was being evacuated.  It seemed unfathomable then; it still seems unfathomable three months later.  Remember the terrifying reality that life as we knew it seemed to change on a dime.  Remember that children, youth, seniors and families experience these life-altering circumstances all the time. 

Our United Way team is intact and ready to work with you to re-build and strengthen the community and region that we love.  We are honoured to be a part of an unparalleled demonstration of resilience in action. 


Russell is a 19 year resident of Wood Buffalo, a community builder, facilitator, social media practitioner, actor, director and artist. He began his Middle Age Bulge blog as a way of capturing his journey to wellness. It has morphed into a daily journal about all aspects of life in the north. Russell works with The United Way of Fort McMurray and co-owns Birdsong Connections with his wife Heather.