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Seeing is Believing: Up Close & Personal with the United Way of Fort McMurray

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We met Amber during a Seeing is Believing tour arranged by the United Way. The public can join these tours when they are arranged in the months leading up to the Community Campaign. They help folks take a behind-the-scenes look at how their funds are invested in many social profit agencies around town.

SHE STRUGGLED FOR WORDS. They did and then didn’t come to her. However, Amber did manage to share that her life would never be the same if it wasn’t for the Stepping Stones Youth Shelter.

Amber (last name withheld) is one of many young adults ages 12 to 24 who found a new life at the facility. She spent four months at the shelter receiving help with her addictions, and life skills as well.

“If it wasn’t for the shelter not much would have changed in my life. I’m saving up now so hopefully I’ll have my own place by the time I’m 18. I want to graduate, and go to college. I want to either be a marine biologist, a realtor, or a tattoo artist,” Amber shared quietly.

Located on 102 McConachie Crescent in Dickinsfield, the shelter is funded by the United Way of Fort McMurray. It is operated by Wood’s Homes, and is a safe haven for homeless and at-risk young people in the region “living on the street, couchsurfing, at-risk of sexual exploitation, or living away from home,” notes Lynn Rhoddy, program supervisor.

Stepping Stones Youth Shelter

United Way became the first funder for the youth shelter in 2008. It started a year later and has helped 250 youngsters since then. An estimated 2,200 sq. feet, the shelter houses youth counsellors and is home to about nine to 10 individuals at any given time. Well-kept, neat, and embracing that “homey” feeling – Stepping Stones is where youth receive mental and physical assessments upon arrival, and then learn life skills as aforementioned. They learn to cook soup, and make grilled cheese sandwiches. They give back by shovelling snow, mowing the lawn, and soon come to see it as their home.

“We have youth staying with us for a few days sometimes, and some up to 300 days,” Lynn continues.

Here’s the kicker. Some individuals are brought in by parents so a domestic crisis could be de-escalated.

“I call it a time-out for everyone. We operate on a philosophy of family-centered. We are here to provide guidance, open up lines of communication, which is key. This is why we give both the parents and the youth 48-hour cooling-off period. Youth will always do better inside their own homes,” Lynn continues.

This is why Stepping Stones has a 100 per cent success rate. Once they return home, a case-worker follows-up with the youth’s family. A plan is created by both parties; followed by three-month, six-month, and then one-year check-ups as needed.

“The United Way keeps our lights on, and food on the table. All the winter clothing for our youth comes from them. Without them our program won’t look the way it does. It is really important that people understand the United Way. Youth need as much support as a small child and lots of forgiveness, because they are learning through trial and error,” says Lynn.

United Way Fort McMurray – What You Didn’t Know

The official website will tell you the “United Way began in Denver in 1887 by a Rabbi, a Minister and a Priest, who came together to help miners’ families. The United Way’s roots in Canada began in 1917 in Toronto and Montreal. United Way of Fort McMurray began in 1978 and our first campaign took place in 1979 when $83,000 was raised to support social services throughout this region.”

Here’s a fun fact. United Way of Fort McMurray was founded by Maryanne Warren in 1978 who took out a personal loan to start the initiative.

Today, the United Way supports 26 agencies and over 65 programs in Fort McMurray. The mission is to “improve lives by building capacity in our community.” And, at around 10 per cent fundraising and operating cost – the United Way has an extraordinary track record.

Many social profits agencies have gone from kitchen tables to professional spaces thanks to the United Way’s shared space model – that houses various organizations at the Redpoll Centre. Earlier this year, the group collaborated with other associations to help launch 211– a service line to all the local, non-emergency social, health, community and government services.

Diane Shannon has been at the helm of the organization for six years, and says the biggest stereotypes about the group have to do with administration cost, and the staff receiving fat pay cheques.

“It is personal. My dedicated staff and I have made a conscious decision to not work for industry. But, it does stab when people reference an inaccurate email chain from years ago, originating in the USA, which accuses the United Way of spending excess money on administration and CEO salaries. Even and Urban Myths pointed out the inaccuracies, but it hurts the heart sometimes,” Diane shares.

It’s time to stop the myths. If you don’t feel like donating to the many agencies – all of which fall under the United Way of Fort McMurray’s three areas of focus: All That Kids Can Be; Healthy People, Strong Communities; and From Poverty to Possibility – don’t perpetuate myths either. Or, do your homework. Come to the Redpoll Centre on Franklin Avenue, talk to one of the nine staff members, or even better – visit the member agencies.


Speaking of member agencies, our next Seeing is Believing tour stop was Some Other Solutions Society for Crisis Prevention on Manning Avenue in downtown. The staff introduced us to their programming via short skits. These included grief and loss counselling for a mother who had just lost a newborn; insight into bullying via the mentor program, and a glimpse into the SOS Crisis Line service featuring a conversation between a suicidal teen and a counsellor.

SOS operates the only suicide prevention and crisis line in the region. Trained listeners are available 365 days and 24/7. Last year the group received 800 calls, 58 of which were suicide related and 12 of those needed intervention by the RCMP so the caller wouldn’t harm themselves.

The SOS has a staff of 11. They place mentors in 10 schools around town. Linda Sovdi is the program health and wellness manager for the SOS, and has been with them for the last four years. A Fort McMurray resident for 11 years, she says, the town’s growth has led to an increase in mental illness as well.

“This means our needs as an agency are growing as well. We wouldn’t be here without the United Way; and we need people to support us,” Linda observes.

“We would like to have an online chat for students. From sick babies to grandparents, we want to meet needs to alleviate anxiety. From loss of a loved one to balancing medication at 2 a.m. having the SOS means I can call someone at the time of anxiety,” she continues.

The staff also feels more counselling services in town are needed - so those seeking help don’t have to go on waiting lists.

Alie Warnes agrees. Operations Director for the SOS, Alie says their goal is to “build a healthy community, which is what we do from the ground up. We count on the whole community to help us.”

And, it is this community that comes together to make up key individuals involved with the United Way. John Evans is United Way personified. An amazing community leader, his passion for the association is evident in his eyes, and resonates clearly when he begins talking about what the group means to the city.

John began working in Fort McMurray in 2007 as a commuter from Halifax. Two years later he bought a home, and his family moved here. John founded and became the president of Universal Builders Supply Canada, ULC, more than two years ago, and believes helping the United Way is the “right thing to do, and just feels right.”

“My first real exposure with the United Way was in 2008. During my first year working here, I couldn’t help but notice the level of United Way activity within the community, whether it was at the workplace campaigns on plant sites, or in the community as a whole. I was so taken with the energy and commitment of the community around the United Way that we conducted a workplace campaign within the company I worked for at that time and it was a great success,” recalls John.

“Since that time I became quite involved and have volunteered on the Community Investment Committee as a team member, then agency support team lead and now I chair the Community Investment Committee. I joined the Board of Directors in 2012, and have also sat as Chair of the Communications Committee,” notes John.

In fact, John’s passion hasn’t gone unnoticed, and in 2010 he received the United Way Pillar of the Community Award.

So what are some of the stereotypes John wishes people didn’t have about the United Way?

“United Way is not just about the homeless and poverty-stricken. It is about kids, youth, adults, parents, families, seniors, schools, immigrants, and the overall social prosperity within our community.”

“The annual administration and campaign costs of the Fort McMurray United Way as a percentage of total revenues are among the lowest of nonprofits in the country.”

“The Seeing is Believing Tour was my aha moment. I visited The Centre of Hope, and the Nistawoyou Friendship Centre. It’s not about giving money only; many of us provide our time, experience, and learnings that can help support a person, or an agency,” John explains.

And, a lesser known fact about the United Way, especially for those doubting Thomases: The Community Investment Committee is made up of community volunteers from all walks of life. There are strict guidelines and transparent processes in place for reviewing and evaluating agency applications and, ultimately, for making recommendations to the Board of Directors.

Ben Dutton chairs the United Way Board of Directors, and is the CEO for The Casman Group of Companies. Ben joined the United Way in 2011 when he moved to Fort McMurray. He says the United Way is about responsibility to the community we call home.

“We are fortunate to live in a place like Fort McMurray where there is so much opportunity, but there are people who need support in accessing that opportunity. The children are my motivation. Children are not in control of their circumstances and it pains me to see kids in need of the most basic things (both tangible and intangible) that the rest of us take for granted in our own family life,” shares Ben.

“I believe it is incumbent upon each of us to do our part to make the community all that it can be; nothing will happen if everyone leaves it to someone else to do the work. I am extremely proud of our efficiency in that 90 per cent of funds we raise go directly to the causes we support - our overhead costs are low and we add a lot of value for our low operating/fundraising costs.”

“I’m also extremely excited about the opportunity that the Shared Space at Shell Place (MacDonald Island) will give us in extending our capacity building program. We move in next spring. We really do have a great team – fantastic staff and a strong and well-rounded board. We’re going to be able to do lot of good things in the next few years!” Ben enthuses.

The Salvation Army

Most of us know The Salvation Army because of its Thrift Store only, and even that is often limited to dropping off donations. Did you know the United Way supports The Salvation Army of Fort McMurray? Or, that the group has a paid staff of 103 people, and is about to celebrate 36 years in Fort McMurray this October?

When I missed the group tour, Joan Nobles, program manager for The Salvation Army, was kind enough to facilitate a personal tour. And, over two hours later – I could see why the church’s motto is Giving Hope Today. The Salvation Army Community Services Centre is located on MacDonald Avenue. This is where the Thrift Store is, but also where many daily programs operate.

Each night 32 men take refuge in the dry shelter program. It is here - those looking for work in Fort McMurray find a bed, and a place to rest for 21 days. Last year alone the shelter assisted 10,080 individuals.

“We have people from all over the world coming in and staying at the shelter. We have 85 per cent of these men from Africa who are escaping volatile conditions in their countries, and don’t even know if their families are alive. Many patrons are from the Canadian East Coast too,” explains Joan.

The Mat program is a wet shelter for winter months only. A wet shelter is a program for those who are intoxicated, or under the influence of chemicals. Plans are underway to make it year-round. Mats line the basement, now being renovated for the September 15 opening. This is where the homeless population can take refuge, and receive hot meals.

“The Mat program was started around 2002. We had people freezing to death, so the municipality approached us for help. We were limited, but we had a basement to help keep them warm, feed them, and lend a listening ear,” shares Joan, who has held many positions with The Salvation Army.

“The United Way provides us funding for food, our soup kitchen, the dry shelter and Mat program, our community response unit (CRU) coordinator’s wages, as well as support for the community/family services program.”

The CRU helps people living on the streets with hot liquids and blankets. Joan says these people are told about The Salvation Army’s Mat program, but still choose to live on the streets.

“We have at least two homeless deaths every year. This is not only because of the cold, but health issues too. Addictions coupled with mental health issues is what we see again and again,” continues Joan.

Helping the developmentally disabled, the group’s START program sees 46 individuals living in five local group homes. START refers to Support Today Achieves Results Tomorrow. These are adults over 18 years old who have physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. Some need partial, others need and receive total care including personal hygiene.

The Salvation Army works closely with Public Health to help these individuals as well as a psychologist who assists.

Community/Family Services is the group’s frontline service arm. A family in need can receive support ranging from rent assistance to funding for work-related courses. Last year 5000 people received help through the initiative. Donations to support many of these efforts are garnered through the Christmas Kettle Program. Six kettles are placed around town, and proceeds also support families with food hampers and holiday gifts.

“I’d like to believe people leave our programs better than when they first arrive. We cater to all faiths. We are not pushing out what we believe; we are practicing what we believe. We respect everyone, because this is our community,” says Joan.

Because this is our community

That pretty much sums it up. You know we’ve been the most giving of all the United Way communities in Canada for seven years in a row. You also know if we won’t care, nobody has to, or will care. Whether it is supporting Tools for School, which provides school supplies to those families who can’t afford them, or helping those down on their luck – United Way is touching lives daily. These are our children, our seniors, our community.

Fast facts about the United Way:

  • The United Way promoted shared space when it was the lead tenant of Suncor House in the early 1990s.
  • United Way facilitates “Days of Caring” for local businesses or teams to visit and connect with an agency and complete a project or task to make their day such as painting, organizing or, planting a garden.
  • We support the only detox facility in the community - Pastew Place.
  • We support the only women’s shelter in the community - Unity House/Family Crisis Society.
  • All our member agencies provide free services for low income individuals/families: The Boys & Girls Club, The Children’s Centre, YMCA, and Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta.
  • For more information visit: @FMUnitedWay

    GH7_1186.JPG: Salvation Army Mat Out of Cold Program director Kate Penney with client support workers (in red, l. to r.) Wayne Green, Brenda Sacrey, Dustin Toope, Jeff Kramer, and Evelyn Gillingham.

    GH7_1200.JPG & GH7_1204.JPG: Jeff Kramer, a client support worker for 11 years with the Salvation Army Mat Out of Cold Program, in the shelter that accommodates up to 35 male and female homeless adults from September to May every year.


Kiran is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.