Rotarians encourage literacy among preschoolers in Fort McMurray region

Father Reading A Book To Children

The Rotary Club of Fort McMurray has positioned itself as a champion of literacy in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray and several small, mainly First Nations communities.

The literacy program, which is offered in partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, provides books to children from birth to age five, at no cost to the family.

“We thought the program would have an impact,” says Rotarian Julianne North Bourque, who has co-ordinated the program since its inception in October 2010. “If we can encourage children to read from an early age, they will go further in their education.”

According to its website, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library has mailed more than 70 million books to children from newborns to age five since it was established by the award-winning country music star in 1995.

In a 2016 article, Forbes magazine wrote that despite her many awards, “the moniker she’s most proud to answer to might be the one she’s least known for: ‘the Book Lady.’”

The program was inspired by Parton’s father, Robert, who never learned to read or write. The Forbes article quotes the singer: “I started my Imagination Library in honor of my dad. He didn’t live long enough to see it do well, but it’s a wonderful program that I take a lot of pride in.”

Learn more at the District conference

Rotarians who attend the District conference in Fort McMurray, September 28 to 30 will have an opportunity to learn more about the Imagination Library. Julianne says there will be a display in the House of Friendship.

In addition, David Dotson, the president of the Dollywood Foundation, will be speaking at the conference.

As well mailing children books monthly, the library sends parents suggested ways to encourage their children to read.

One tip Julianne feels is important is that fathers read to their children. “Children, particularly boys, who don’t see their father read are less likely to become readers.”

Initially, the program targeted children in rural communities outside Fort McMurray, where the club has not been particularly involved in projects due to the remoteness of some of the communities.

A challenge that the club had to overcome was the suspicions of community members about outsiders initiating a program for their community. Some though it might be “like a record or book club—free at first, but then they would have to pay,” Julianne says.

Another reason they started in the rural communities is that it was easier to obtain funding for programs there. The plan was to eventually include children living in Fort McMurray, but the club “didn’t want to start until we had funds in place for five years.”

Funding from Syncrude allowed program to expand

This happened in 2012, when Syncrude Canada—having heard about the success of the program—signed on as the major sponsor. The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and other companies operating in the region also provide financial support.

There are currently 2,346 children who receive a book each month. Another 2,795 have “graduated” from the program on their fifth birthday.

The books are packaged in Tennessee and trucked to Canada to be distributed by mail to children whose parents have signed them up for the program.

Parents learn about the program from information that the club has placed throughout the community at drop-in centres for young children, at the library and at daycares. “We also promote it at special events and with brochures. There is a great website that parents can look at and where they can sign up their children.” Julianne says.

Julianne is one of two Canadians who were invited to be part of the committee, which chooses books for the Imagination Library. She says that the books are selected with care. “They are good quality books which are age appropriate. They include concepts to which children should be exposed,” she says.

Feedback from parents and teachers has been positive. “The parents love it. Their kids love it. They love being read to,” she says.

“Teachers tell us it makes a difference when children who have been exposed to books arrive at school. Kids who have been read to at home are more successful.”

The Forbes article says that “repeated studies by the foundation have shown that Parton’s efforts are helping to develop children’s vocabularies and early-school readiness.”

Collingwood testimonial

Mucha testimonial

St. Albert Rotarians “paddling” their way towards the club’s Foundation goal


Who says that raising funds for the Rotary Foundation needs to be tedious? Certainly not Ann Ramsden, the Rotary Foundation director for the Rotary Club of St. Albert, who is using gamification to generate excitement around the annual request for donations.

Gamification is “the process of adding games or game-like elements to something (such as a task) so as to encourage participation” (source: Merriam Webster).

At the club’s August 18 meeting, Ann unfurled a map showing the route for a year-long virtual canoe journey from Rotary Park in downtown St. Albert to the Sturgeon Valley Golf and Country Club, where St. Albert Rotarians gather every Friday morning.


Rotarian Ann Ramsden points to the figures representing members of the Rotary Club of St. Albert who she hopes will board the virtual canoe, which she hopes will carry the club to its TRF goal.

Along the way, Rotarians will pause at well-known St. Albert sites to celebrate achieving quarterly fundraising targets. In June, the journey will end successfully when Rotarians meet the Foundation goal set by the club’s executive: to raise US$16,000 for the Rotary Foundation, with the participation of all members.

“We don’t want anyone left standing in Rotary Park,” Ann says, inviting everyone to join her on the journey.

When everyone has stepped into the canoe, the club will have achieved the second part of its Rotary Foundation goal— “Every Rotarian Every Year.” This initiative of Rotary International challenges all Rotarians to support the Rotary Foundation every year.

Ann feels this approach is a more effective way to encourage donations than “just standing up and talking about it.”

Based on her experience with fundraising for the non-profit organization for which she works, Ann believes it’s important that members are “able to see progress towards the goals in a way that is fun and meaningful.”

Wayne Kauffman (Edmonton Riverview), the Rotary Foundation director for District 5370, applauds the St. Albert club’s initiative to support the Rotary Foundation.

“It is through initiatives such as that of the St. Albert club that the Rotary Foundation will be able to continue its work. It is vital that clubs continue to support the Foundation, which enables Rotarians to carry out projects locally and around the world. District 5370 is very active in many countries, such as Belize, Uganda, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador.”

PresCitation#1_ TRF

He notes that 54 per cent of Rotarians in District 5370 gave to the Foundation in 2016-2017, and is hoping to see more participation during this Rotary year.

“I’m asking that the 46 per cent who didn’t give last year consider giving to the Foundation in 2017-2018. It’s important that Rotarians look to making our Rotary Foundation their charity of choice.”

You can donate to TRF Canada online. To learn more about donating to TRF, contact members of the District’s annual fund subcommittee, Hal Quillian (Edmonton Strathcona), or Vicky Grabb (St. Albert)


What’s happening in your club? Has it or individual Rotarians found fun ways to provide funds to the Rotary Foundation? Perhaps you are planning a special event in support of the Foundation. Share what’s happening in your club by leaving a comment below or emailing

The “Beast” was just another challenge for organizers of the 2017 District conference


Consider the challenges associated with planning any Rotary District conference: finding the right date, deciding on a theme, securing a venue, selecting speakers, getting people to register, etc. Then locate it in a community 300 km away from the next nearest Rotary club and at least a five-hour drive away from where most Rotarians in the District live.

If that wasn’t enough, insert into the mix a devastating wildfire which led to a month-long evacuation of the entire city.

Now you are beginning to understand what faced conference chair Matt Pate (Fort McMurray Oilsands) and members of the committee responsible for planning the 2017 Rotary District 5370 Conference, scheduled for September 28 to 30 at Shell Place in Fort McMurray.

District Conference Banner

Despite these obstacles, Matt is pleased with what they’ve accomplished. “We are really excited. We have a wonderful conference planned.”

The conference committee was formed about two years ago, soon after Frank Reitz (Fort McMurray) was identified as the District Governor Nominee. A delegation from Fort McMurray attended the 2015 conference in Dawson Creek to learn everything they could from the committee that organized that event.

The committee’s first task was to select a conference theme. This theme, “Make It Personal,” which Matt describes as the brainchild of Frank Reitz, guided the committee’s decisions about how the conference would be organized and who would be invited to speak.

One of these speakers is Darby Allen, the now-retired Fort McMurray fire chief, who became the face of the battle to prevent the fire he dubbed “The Beast,” from devouring the community.

“It is a very personal thing to have him come back to Fort McMurray to speak,” Matt says.

Other speakers include:

Jon Montgomery – a gold-medal winning Olympian and the host of The Amazing Race Canada.

Sean Hogan – a member of the Rotary Club of North Delta, who has filled several Rotary roles at the club, both at District and International levels, including as a District governor in 2012 to 2013.

Ann Lee Hussey – a Rotarian (Portland Sunrise in Maine), who has made the eradication of polio and alleviation of suffering by polio survivors her life work.

David Dotson – the president of the Dollywood Foundation, whose assignment includes overseeing the international extension of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

When citizens were able to return to the community, Rotarians in Fort McMurray resumed conference planning, but the events of May 2016 meant there were changes.

“The committee had a different look after the fire,” Matt says. “There were different demands on people’s time. They had different priorities.”

Some committee members stepped back from their involvement, including Matt’s co-chair, whose home was lost to the fire. Subsequently, she and her husband decided to leave Fort McMurray. Matt was also out of his own home for seven months.

Despite these setbacks, the committee pressed forward. “We have a strong core group of eight to 10 people, who are very engaged. Others have provided insights and value, but have not been able to commit to attend all the meetings,” Matt says.

In its work, the committee has had to respond to high expectations set by the District governor. “Frank had an ambitious plan for the conference, including Rise Against Hunger and a youth conference.”

Matt says that plans for the youth conference had to be scaled back. “We planned to host all the students from Grades 7 to 12 from Fort McMurray schools. Due to budget constraints, we scaled it down to 500 students, identified as those involved in leadership programs in their schools.”

The youth conference is scheduled for Friday, September 29. In addition to including students from Fort McMurray’s junior and senior high schools, the conference will host exchange students and members of Interact and Rotaract clubs from across the District. “We are excited to have Craig Kielberger (cofounder of Free The Children, an international development and youth empowerment organization) coming as a keynote speaker,” Matt says.

To meet the geographic challenge associated with a conference in Fort McMurray, the committee has worked with Diversified Transportation to allow Rotarians to leave their vehicles at home and the driving to someone else.

“Diversified is offering a package for people from almost anywhere in the District who don’t want to drive,” Matt says. “During the conference, we will provide busing to and from hotels and the conference site throughout the day. You won’t need a vehicle.”

To arrange your transportation, contact Diversified directly by calling 780-743-2244, ext. 203. (Please note the special Rotary pricing).

Two Optional Tours Added to the Conference

Recent additions to the conference program are two optional tours scheduled between the end of each day’s program and the evening’s social activity:

Friday: Helicopter Tour – This tour will provide an overview of the sites of the 2016 wildfire, from where it began to the neighbourhoods it consumed. ($120, space is limited)

Saturday: Oilsands Tour – This bus tour will include stops at the Giants of Mining display and the Wood Buffalo Viewpoint and Bison Sanctuary. ($20)

Both tours will depart from the conference site. Spouses and other family members who are not registered for the conference will be able to join these tours.