In early May, wildfires forced the evacuation of the 100,000 people living in or near Fort McMurray, Alberta, the largest evacuation in Alberta history. The fire was eventually contained, but it left the community badly damaged. Fort McMurray Christian School sustained no damage in the fire, but several families connected with the school lost their homes, including a married couple who both teach at the school.
“Many of our families evacuated to central and south Alberta, but when it became apparent that we would not be retuning for an extended period, many families traveled to where they have family,” said Joseph Champion, the school’s principal.
Beginning in June, authorities allowed people to returning to the community in waves, as it was deemed safe to do so, and clean-up and rebuilding began. “Every school in the city had all the ceiling tiles taken out and refinished, and the schools were cleaned from top to bottom—a very long process,” said Champion. “But our school was ready for the opening on September 6.”
“Last year in September our enrollment was 222 students,” said Champion. “This year, our enrollment is a little less: 217 students, but that's not the full picture. Fort McMurray is a transient community, so we actually lost 11 percent of our families or students from last year, a total of 26 students. We have added new students, as is usual. We’ve also had higher-than-usual staff turnover, as some teachers and their families have relocated.”
Agencies such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are helping with resettlement issues, and the school’s society and the public school’s board are making sure that the needs of staff are being met. All teachers and support staff have been equipped with mental health training and are watching the students for signs of anxiety and trauma. “During the first week back, we encouraged students to write about their experiences of leaving and coming back or where they were for the time away from Fort McMurray,” said Champion. “We are trying to stay abreast of many triggers that students and staff could face as we move forward.”
“As a principal I have been overwhelmed by the support,” said Champion. “A person who had once worked in education in Fort McMurray took it upon herself to provide a gift for each staff member that worked at Fort McMurray Christian School before the evacuation. She wrapped them and personalized them, and also provided a care package for every staff member to start the year. This is a lady that I did not know, but God laid it on her heart to do something for Fort McMurray Christian.
“Maybe a week later I received an envelope dropped off at the front desk, and the letter addressed to me said, ‘I've never been in your school before but God had laid on my heart to do this,’ and this person wrote a letter for each one of our staff and had enclosed two $25 gift cards from various agencies or stores. It was a blessing, and these things continue to happen. We see God’s hand in so many ways.”