Lethbridge College Child and Youth Care instructor Allen Ledyit was getting ready for church on May 8 when he got the call. Could he join the Canadian Red Cross’s effort helping some of the 88,000 evacuees who had been forced to flee the horrific fires around Fort McMurray? He said yes, of course. He was expecting the call and had the car loaded up and ready to go. Ledyit worked with evacuees for almost three weeks in Edmonton, heading home in time to attend his son’s high school graduation. He returned after a month to help as the situation moved from helping provide immediate relief to the evacuees to case management. During his time back in Lethbridge, Ledyit and Penny Balfour, a community outreach associate with the Lethbridge office of the Canadian Red Cross, took time to speak with Wider Horizons about working with the people affected by Canada’s worst national disaster and the value of giving back to the community as a Red Cross volunteer.
Wider Horizons: Allen, tell us about working with the evacuees.
Allen Ledyit: It is funny how we can so casually say “I have nothing to wear” or “I’m so broke.” When a woman tearfully clutches her purse and says quietly “this is all I have” or, upon complimenting a man on his very nice watch he smiles and says “Thanks, I was walking downtown when they picked me up and evacuated me – it is all I have,” one cannot help but be humbled and see things with a different perspective. No matter how bad a day you or I have had, it is unlikely to compare to what these brave individuals are dealing with. However, I am impressed by their strength and resilience in spite of all of this. I believe that the character of both the evacuees and, in fact, everyone who is offering help and support, here and worldwide, has really exemplified the best of us, the best of the human race. It is truly awesome what we can accomplish with a little caring isn’t it?
WH: And what can you tell us about your fellow volunteers?
AL: We had a really great team – we loved being together and it was a really good working environment. We were housed initially in a post-secondary residence, and being all together like this facilitated a wonderful comradery and sense of feeling supported. But it was also challenging – lots of 12 hour days and plenty of frustrating situations and some very upset individuals to deal with.
WH: Did you meet any other volunteers who you had worked with in the past?
AL: During the first week, “the Americans” (the American Red Cross) arrived to assist us, and I was able to rekindle some friendships with those who were here last year helping with the Saskatchewan Evacuation up in Cold Lake. I just love those men and women! They were such a fantastic support because many of them have had multiple deployments to a variety of disasters within their own borders. I think almost every point on the map of North America was represented by the volunteers I worked with, and I was honoured to be included in their presence.
WH: What kind of work did your group do?
AL: Over the first few days, I primarily worked with a team, first out of Rexall Place and then out of the Expo, to provide assessments and emergency relief to evacuees – often in the form of various gift cards and vouchers at Walmart. Once the emergency relief changed to being distributed using online e-transfer to their bank accounts, our role shifted to helping those few who are not tech savvy or are having other difficulties accessing their new relief money. Later I joined a new team at the Red Cross Edmonton office doing much the same thing but also providing some additional support to those who were in a more vulnerable situation than many of the other evacuees due to a number of factors, such as having infants, additional unexpected financial emergencies, illness and other infirmities.
WH: Why did you decide to volunteer to help the Red Cross?
AL: My dad was a volunteer fire chief for 30 years. I think he instilled in me that you are part of the community and you do what you can for the community. I have always been involved, and I had been seeing these tragedies happening, primarily in the summer, and getting more and more frequent and more and more intense. I thought, I have a history working in crisis as a social worker… I can do this kind of stuff.
WH: Has the college supported your volunteer work?
AL: I am proud to come from the college that has supported me in doing this. Their way of helping is to send me. They can’t go – but they can send me.
WH: Penny, you were a Red Cross volunteer for five years before coming to work for the Red Cross. What do you think is the value of volunteering?
Penny Balfour: The payoff is the people – the fellow volunteers, the clients, the municipalities where you work. Everyone you come in contact with, especially on deployment, everyone there is there for the same cause, the same reason. They all want somehow make sure folks in a crisis have their basic needs met.
WH: What special skills are needed to be a volunteer?
PB: Everyone has something to offer. If you have a background in logistics, in management, in changing garbage bags, there is a way for you to help the Red Cross. We welcome volunteers of every age, background and walk of life – we have more than 60 here in Lethbridge who we call on to help in personal disasters or bigger emergencies. What you can do as a Red Cross volunteer is so exceptional. No amount of education or salary you would make would make up for the kind of experience you have in the Red Cross.
WH: Allen, there were so many people affected by the Fort McMurray fires. Were you ever disappointed that you couldn’t do more?
AL: Have you heard of the story of the old man walking down the beach, and the tide had gone out and left a lot of starfish behind? The man throws a starfish back in the water. And then another one. And then another. The person walking with him says “There’s thousands of these starfish. What difference could it possibly make?” The man says, “Well, it makes a difference to that one.” It’s easy to wonder how you can possibly make a difference- but we make a difference when we can, and we help the people we are able to help, however we can.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities with the Canadian Red Cross, call (403) 327-7117. For more information about Lethbridge College’s Child and Youth Care program, call 403-320-3393 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
EXCEPTS FROM ALLEN LEDYIT’S EMAILS TO FAMILY AND FRIENDS DURING HIS FIRST WEEK WEEKS
May 12, 2016
I thought I would send you a quick email update while I have a “moment”. (Well, maybe it is not that quick after all).
On the weekend, the Red Cross decided to open many of their offices all over Alberta, including in Lethbridge, in order to provide immediate assistance to evacuees who were leaving Fort McMurray and arriving into communities, often to stay with friends or family. I assisted with this in Lethbridge on Saturday and, although I was understandably disturbed as they relayed some of their experiences, my heart was warmed as I witnessed a tearful but happy family reunion and we received gracious appreciation and even hugs from evacuees as they extended their immense gratitude for the service that the Red Cross provided.
On Sunday morning, as I was getting ready to head to church, I received my eagerly anticipated deployment call. “We need you in Edmonton”…”when?”…”how soon can you get here?”. When I arrived in Edmonton later that afternoon they sent me to my accommodations to rest up given the long drive which I very much appreciated.
Over the last few days, I have primarily been working with a team (first out of Rexall Place, and now out of the Expo where the majority of shelter and other services are set up) to provide assessments and emergency relief to evacuees in the form of various gift cards and vouchers for WalMart. Now that the emergency relief is being distributed using online e-transfer to their bank accounts, they no longer need to wait for hours in long lines. We just couldn’t see everyone who wanted help each day and that was frustrating. Now our role seems to be helping those few who are not tech savvy or are having other difficulties accessing their new relief money. We are looking forward to an announcement tonight or tomorrow about an amendment to the process that is designed to help these people more specifically.
Things change very quickly here. Information that we are asked to disseminate to people can be outdated within short hours which can be very frustrating for all of us (frustrating but not unexpected in the beginning of such a large response). This morning I spent a few hours with crowds of evacuees, hearing their understandable frustrations yes, but most expressed understanding of the situation and a great respect and appreciation for the Red Cross and the City of Edmonton. The City here has provided service to these evacuees in an unprecedented manner. They were trained, organized, prepared, and as a consequence were able to take over many of the responsibilities for the provision of support to evacuees that the Red Cross normally does. Their operation is tremendous.
The days have been 12 hours or more and there have been plenty of frustrating situations and some very upset individuals to deal with. That being said, evacuees and colleagues in this venture are frequently sharing their appreciation for our presence and work here.
I am writing to you tonight from a residence at a campus where most of the Red Cross in the area have been relocated. Being all together like this facilitates a wonderful comradery and sense of feeling supported. Over the last two days “the Americans” (the American Red Cross) have been arriving to assist us. I have been able to rekindle some friendships with those who were here last year helping with the Saskatchewan Evacuation up in Cold Lake. I just love those men and women! They are such a fantastic support because many of them have had multiple deployments to a variety of disasters within their own borders. I think almost every point on the map of North America is represented by the volunteers that are here now and I am honoured to be included in their presence. I try to let them know that as often as I can. We can’t get so busy that we forget to extend appreciation for each other. I believe the little things count. For instance, one of the Americans, upon seeing the patio had a BBQ commented several times about how nice it would be to roast marshmallows. When she gets back after her first day today she will find a marshmallow poker and bag of marshmallows hanging from her door. I wonder how those got there? ;-)
I am so grateful to all of you for your support in making this experience possible and that fact is ever-present with me. It is funny how we can so casually say “I have nothing to wear” or “I’m so broke”, etc. When a woman tearfully clutches her purse and says quietly “this is all I have” or, upon complimenting a man on his very nice watch he smiles and says “thanks, I was walking downtown when they picked me up and evacuated me – it is all I have” – one cannot help but be humbled and see things with a different perspective. No matter how bad a day you or I have had, it is unlikely to compare to what these brave individuals are dealing with. However, I am impressed by their strength and resilience in spite of all of this. I believe that the character of both the evacuees and, in fact, everyone who is offering help and support (here and worldwide) has really exemplified the best of us, the best of the human race. It is truly awesome what we can accomplish with a little caring isn’t it?
It appears I am waxing poetic so it must be time for bed. Thanks once again for all your support and, although this email does seem to drone on a bit, I hope it paints a good picture for you of what is going on here from one small man’s perspective.
I will try to send other updates in the future as opportunity permits. No reply required. All my best.
P.S. If people are asking how to help, I would strongly encourage them to make a financial donation, no matter how small, to the Red Cross for redistribution to the evacuees. From what I am hearing and seeing, I personally believe that emergency financial relief is likely to be required for some time. Once these people begin to get out of the shelters and off the floors of friends’ living rooms and into their own homes, then there will be an increasing need for in-kind / gently used donations. Let’s pray that we can make that happen for them sooner rather than later. Goodnight.
May 20, 2016
Greetings from the smoky north!
I thought I would give you another update on my deployment with the Canadian Red Cross. This time, I will use more pictures than words to convey my experiences. Unfortunately they are not in chronological order. The following comments, observations, and perspectives are mine alone and do not officially represent the Red Cross in any way (disclaimer).
Photo 1: This one is a little grainy as lighting conditions were not ideal. Some of the American Red Cross volunteers heard me singing along with some live entertainment in a nearby establishment one night and before I knew it, they had committed me to performing at the open mic night (something I have never done before). I bought an affordable used guitar off Kijiji and rehearsed a few songs I thought they might like (in the rare few minutes I have before my head hits the pillow following long days). After my performance, each of my Red Cross audience members presented me with a rose in a humorous fashion one by one and they took photos – until I had a full bouquet from them! What a riot! The next day as I was working at the office, I would occasionally hear my voice singing in a recording from the night before as it was shared between staff. Now I’m “The Rock Star” LOL!! As some staff couldn’t make it because they were tired from greeting the most recent evacuees at the airport, I have been committed to perform some new tunes at the next open mic night. I have a duet planned with one of the other performers from that night but still need to pick out a few songs my friends can sing along with. I have no idea where I will find the time but perhaps tomorrow on my day off I can practice a bit. Self care!!
Photo 2: This is a photo of the team I have been working with in front of the Edmonton Red Cross office where I have mostly been assigned lately. We have a mutual appreciation society you might say. We have formed a close working relationship through turbulent times but provided some fantastic front line service to the evacuees, especially those that may be more at-risk or more vulnerable. Those who know me know that I try to be liberal but genuine with my compliments. With this group of dedicated and hard-working people, that is easy.
Photo 3: Initially I was providing emergency financial relief with a team at the Rexall Centre. After a few days we moved to a much more functional space near the shelter quarters of the Expo. People no longer needed to line up outside but could comfortably wait while sitting in chairs in a climate controlled environment. Each day we were trying to assess and address the immediate needs of evacuees. We prepared vouchers for stores and gave out gift cards for different businesses based on specific needs. Once the E-transfer went out, that became the primary method of emergency support. Then we were trouble shooting with individuals for whom the process wasn’t working or had difficulty with it for one reason or another. I can’t stress enough how amazing it was that the Red Cross was able to transfer so much relief to so many evacuees – the scale and promptness of this is astounding!
Photo 4: For a day I worked at one of the warehouses preparing clean-up kits for distribution once the evacuees head home. Over my shoulder you can see skids of Canadian Red Cross clean-up kits, and the skids I am pointing to are filled with American Red Cross clean-up kits. There are many more of these kits and other supplies that I could not fit in the photo. I believe these kits will be given out to evacuees when they return for the purpose of helping to clean and sanitize their homes. …It is my understanding that the Red Cross will be there to support the evacuees when they return.
Photo 5: This is an “action shot” of me giving a voucher to a “client” (Don’t worry, I would never breach confidentiality. You can see him in photo two also as one of my teammates). Each day I am working in a different work space under ever-changing conditions. This week has been very taxing on all of us as demand for our assistance has been high and the work has been challenging. I am proud of my team and of myself for rising to the occasion and doing what we all came here to do – provide relief to others through an attitude of caring, compassion, and professionalism.
Once again, I extend my appreciation to you all for your support.
And to all a Good Night!