Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Local schools open their hearts to evacuees

For the Bonnyville Nouvelle.

Fort McMurray evacuee Sebastien Griffith, 6, stands with Duclos principal Richard Cameron. Griffith is attending Duclos while his family is staying in Bonnyville.
Angie Hampshire

Dave Griffith just can’t say enough good things about Bonnyville.

“Everyone in this town has been phenomenal, everywhere you go,” said Griffith. “When we registered at your recreation centre, one lady came up and just gave me a big hug and asked if everything was okay.”

The father of two’s life was turned upside down after the call was made to evacuate Fort McMurray on May 3. He and his wife, Essa, grabbed everything they could and were out of Fort McMurray as soon as they could be.

“When they did the final evacuation, we had to travel north,” explained Griffith. “So we went up to the Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) horizon site and spent the night.”

Griffith added he was told that a lot of the CNRL staff slept in their offices to ensure that the evacuees had enough beds to sleep in.

“The next morning they had giant breakfast spreads set up for everyone,” continued Griffith. “I know now I’m going to have to up my standards for cooking breakfast. The kids now know there’s more than one type of bacon.”

Among the many challenges he has faced over the past two weeks was trying to keep his children away from the worst of the news coming out of the oil city.

“We tried to shelter them from a lot of the scary news stories, and we wanted to get them back into a routine as soon as possible,” explained Griffith. “So when we found out the schools were more than willing to bring in the kids, right away we jumped at the opportunity.”

Luckily for him, the school system in Bonnyville was there to answer the call. An order came down from Education Minister David Eggan for all Alberta schools to enrol students displaced by the wildfires for as long as needed. Local schools across the region wasted no time opening their doors - and their hearts - to the wandering evacuees.

“They refused to take any money,” said Griffith. “Then they asked if there was anything else they could do for us.”

His son, six-year-old Sebastien, is now enrolled in Duclos Elementary. His daughter, 11-year-old Lydia, is enrolled in H.E. Bourgoin.

“We knew that we would accept any student quite happily,” said Richard Cameron, principal of Duclos Elementary School.

“We started putting together a plan to be very prepared to accept students as of May 9.”

Cameron mentioned that the school system was providing everything from backpacks to hot lunches to help the young students transition to their temporary schools.

“The teacher came out and showed my son around the school,” noted Griffith, adding the school went so far as to have teddy bears prepared for all the new students. “We didn’t have to worry about anything.”

“It’s stunning,” said Griffith with a pause. “The way (the staff) jumped in and took care of everything.”

School fees were also waived for evacuees to help through this difficult time.

Cameron added that the school had counsellors ready to help students with the transition. He pointed out that giving children some structure was a vital part of lightening the load that many kids are coping with.

Griffith agreed wholeheartedly.

“I have some emergency management background. I know how important it is for the young ones to get back into a fixed routine again. If they’re just sitting around they’re going to hear stuff on the (news).”

Cameron said that all the children of Duclos gave his new students a very warm welcome.

“Little children tend to get attached to their school, but the newcomers have been very bubbly and happy to be here,” added Cameron. “We want to do everything we can to make the children safe and comfortable.”

Fort McMurray students are also exempt from having to take final exams for this year, though according to Bonnyville Centralized High School (BCHS) Principal Corey Baker, at least one student attending BCHS already wrote his diploma exam.

“He studied for it and he wanted to write it,” laughed Baker. “He was all smiles today and just happy to be back at school.”

Baker emphasized that the friendships people make during times of crisis can last a lifetime.
According to Nicole Garner of the Northern Lights School Division, as of Friday afternoon 242 students had been welcomed in the division’s 15 schools.

“We’re adding new kids every day,” explained Garner. “We’re definitely expecting more to come in through the coming weeks.”

Griffith maintained that being able to put his kids in school was making the rest of the evacuation process far easier.

“We don’t have to be as careful talking to insurance companies, or even when family checks in,” commented Griffith. “We don’t have to censor ourselves. We can spread all the paperwork over the small table and track where everything is.”

The smooth transition for the new students is a welcomed development during these difficult times, especially given the uncertainty of the situation. It is widely expected that it will be several weeks before evacuees will be able to return home.

“I don’t even think the province knows when people will be able to go home,” said Cameron. “If people want to stay for a few weeks or the entire remainder of the school year – we are entirely flexible.”

Griffith and his family are currently staying in a fifth-wheel donated by a friend he met at CNRL.

“Luckily, my kids love camping,” he said with a laugh.

He added that he was fortunate enough that his house survived the flames.

“It’s not just a house. It’s electricity and roads,” he added. “I can’t see it being less than several weeks before they get the infrastructure back to where it’s safe.”

Griffith said that he’s not in a huge hurry to move his kids around.

“If they get very comfortable with the place, I could see asking our host if they could let us stay a little bit longer so we can finish the year out,” suggested Griffith. “The kids seem to be really having a lot of fun with the classes, and the staff is bending over backwards to help us out.”

"This is an awesome town."

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