The flames have long been extinguished and much of the area devastated by the May 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire—dubbed “The Beast” by former regional fire chief Darby Allen—has been rebuilt, but the emotional impact will take longer to heal, particularly the sense of loss felt by the community’s youngest residents.
As a result of the generosity of Rotarians and others, there is a tool available to help the children of the Wood Buffalo region come to grips with what they experienced.
A grant of $75,000 from the Rotary District 5370 Charitable Foundation allowed Some Other Solutions to contract with local filmmaker Michael Mankowski to create an animated film that will be used with children in Fort McMurray and made available to other communities that have experienced similar disasters.
SOS, the mandate of which is focused on suicide prevention, was one of nearly 20 agencies and groups to receive grants from the $1,000,000 in donations received for the Fort McMurray Fire Relief Fund.
The film injects the actual words of the fire’s survivors into a world inhabited by the animals of the boreal forest.
“We hope that by juxtaposing these very humanistic, emotionally weighty stories with the light-heartedness of an animated animal world, we can create a compelling and cathartic experience for our audience,” Mankowski says.
Within days of the fire, which destroyed parts of Fort McMurray and forced a month-long evacuation of the more than 80,000 residents from the community, the Rotary District 5370 Charitable Foundation began to solicit funds for its Fort McMurray Fire Relief Fund.
“Within a matter of months, nearly one million dollars had been received,” says Past District Governor and former Charitable Foundation president Julius Buski (RC of St. Albert-Saint City). “Donations ranged from single digits to $100,000 from one donor. Rotary clubs from across Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and even the United Kingdom contributed over $125,000. The balance came from caring and concerned individuals.”
The Foundation is a separate entity from Rotary District 5370 and is recognized by the Canada Revenue Agency as a charitable foundation. It is governed by a board of directors elected annually by Foundation members, all of whom are Rotarians. There is no paid staff.
Its mission is to assist clubs in the district to raise funds for their projects.
Five years before the Fort McMurray fire, the foundation raised and distributed funds following the Slave Lake wildfire. Julius says this was a “valuable experience,” which prepared the foundation to deal with the much larger 2016 fire.
Another grant of $60,000 was awarded to the Centre of Hope, which executive director Amanda Holloway says, “provides programs for people experiencing various stages of homelessness.”
She says, “the fire put an incredible strain on the community and non-profit agencies to meet the needs of people.”
Following the fire, the agency saw an increase in the number of people it was serving. “About 25 per cent of the people we serve are new to homelessness,” Holloway says. “It’s incredibly important that we are there to deal with people who are new to homelessness.”
The agency offers homeless people a safe place to go, where they have access to laundry facilities, showers and snacks. Staff works with clients to overcome barriers that prevent them from moving from homelessness to more permanent accommodation.
The support of the Charitable Foundation was acknowledged at the provincial level, when then-District Governor Frank Reitz, Foundation Treasurer Kathy Strobl (RC of Edmonton Whyte Avenue) and PDG Laura Morie (RC of Westlock) were introduced to members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.
Issuing a call for donations was only the first step for the Charitable Foundation.
“While donations flowed in quickly, making disbursement from the fund was a much longer process,” Julius says. “The Red Cross and other agencies provided necessary immediate relief. Many residents did not experience personal loss, but others needed to deal with insurance companies, rebuilding homes and emotional stress and grief.
“Once the situation was stabilized, the Rotary District 5370 Charitable Foundation began considering how the funds in the Fort McMurray Fire Relief Fund could best be utilized,” he says.
The Foundation established a local allocation advisory committee, chaired by Fort McMurray Rotarian Bryan Lutes, to identify the most critical needs. Other Rotarians on the committee— Susan Bottern, Jennifer Bludd, Rob Denis and Kyle Warren—came from the two Rotary clubs in Fort McMurray; DG Frank Reitz also provided advice.
The committee solicited applications from groups eligible to receive funds from the Foundation under Canada Revenue Agency’s rules. After reviewing applications, the local committee made recommendations to the Foundation board, which made the final decisions related to grants.
On February 28, 2018, the Foundation and the Fort McMurray Rotary clubs hosted a “Million Dollar Dinner” for grant recipients, the mayor and council of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and MLA Tany Yao to celebrate the hope that grants from the Fort McMurray Wildfire Relief Fund provided the community.
Recipient organizations made short presentations, highlighting how the funds would be used.
In addition to SOS and the Centre for Hope, other grant recipients included:
Stepping Stones Youth Services ($68,860) – Outreach worker for youth at risk
Ecole St. Paul ($10,000) – Replacement of destroyed library books
Girls Inc. of Northern Alberta ($10,000) – Mental health mentoring
Wood Buffalo Child and Youth Advocacy Centre ($40,000) – Child and youth advocacy/mental health
Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo—Welcome Centre ($86,160) – Interpretation and translation unit
Fort McMurray Public School District ($75,000) – School-based mental health therapist
Northern Lights Health Centre ($100,000) – Infant-care resuscitation and warming units
Wood Buffalo Educare Society ($37,126) – Lost hearing aids and supplies
Habitat for Humanity Wood Buffalo Society ($60,000) – Warehouse space rent and volunteer support
STEM Wood Buffalo Charitable Projeclit ($72,000) – After-school and summer learning programs
Fort McMurray Catholic School District ($9,000) – Resources for out-of-school care programs
Anzac Family Community Support Society ($5,500) – Community support services
A second set of grants were distributed in June 2018 to:
Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta NE Region ($45,000)
Fort McMurray Public School District #2833 ($50,000)
Fort McMurray Society of the Friends of Music ($5,625)
Hub Family Resource Centre ($31,500)
Fort McMurray Catholic Board of Education ($34,377)
Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo ($75,000)
Northern Lights Health Foundation ($43,500)
“We were touched by the generosity of Rotary clubs and individuals, and their contributions to the Fort McMurray Fire Relief Fund,” says past Foundation chair Julius Buski. “It’s heartening to see such an outpouring of care and concern in a time of crisis.”