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Westlock pulls together for evacuated Slave Lake residents

Westlock residents’ response to the plight of their neighbours to the north has so far been “overwhelming,” town manager Darrell Garceau said.
The community has been generous with support for the Slave Lake evacuees who have found themselves in Westlock. Above, a mountain of donations can be seen as volunteers Paddy
The community has been generous with support for the Slave Lake evacuees who have found themselves in Westlock. Above, a mountain of donations can be seen as volunteers Paddy Zadunayski (left) and Kristi Ringuette tend the donation centre at the Saan store.

Westlock residents’ response to the plight of their neighbours to the north has so far been “overwhelming,” town manager Darrell Garceau said.

Last week, more than 400 residents signed up to volunteer in a wide variety of capacities — from organizing activities at the Westlock and District Community Hall to sorting donations for the evacuees from Slave Lake.

“Everyone’s upbeat and happy to help,” Garceau said. “This is Westlock and the region at its best.”

Donations have been coming in from all over the province, from as far away as Edson, Lethbridge, Lloydminster and Wainwright. So many donations have come in, in fact, that the Westlock Legion and the former Saan store are filled to capacity with necessities like clothes, toiletries, children’s items, as well as non-essential items like toys and books.

With both those two buildings at capacity, Garceau said a local moving company has offered warehouse space for the truckloads of donations that continue to roll in. Donations are also being stored at vacant office space in the Bargain Store mall.

Vivian Zittlaw, acting as the town’s public information officer, said that about 1,200 Slave Lake residents have been processed at the Westlock evacuation centre, many of whom found other temporary housing. She added that the generosity of Westlock residents has been “amazing.”

People have volunteered for a wide variety of reasons, but for one volunteer the reason hit fairly close to home. County resident Ed LeBlanc said he has been volunteering for two reasons.

“First, this is my community and I want to help,” he said. “Second, my wife and I lost our home in a fire 13 years ago. We’ve been in that situation before, and we just want to help.”

The community rallied to help them out, he said, which they greatly appreciated, and he’s happy to be able to provide the same kind of help to other people in a similar situation.

“It’s nice to feel like you’re not there by yourself,” he said. “Then it was just a matter of rebuilding and we moved forward.”

Another volunteer, Willy Lehmann, said he was one of the first volunteers down at the community hall Sunday night. He got a call through the Elks club in town, and headed right over.

“Our group is quite heavily involved over there (at the community hall),” he said.

He added the outpouring of support from the community has been remarkable, and quickly dissuaded any worries there wouldn’t be enough people.

“We didn’t know how many would come,” he said.

For Kristi Ringuette, a nursing student, the reason to help was self-evident — helping is motivation in and of itself. She has been working every day since the call came in.

“It’s hard to go home at night. There’s always something to do,” she said.

It has been an incredibly moving experience to see the outpouring of support from the community, she added, especially as she sees first-hand how much it’s appreciated.

“You start to second-guess the human race in general, then something like this happens and people really go above and beyond,” she said. “It’s sad to say, sometimes when people aren’t directly affected by a tragedy it’s easy to sidestep it. Not these people.”

With files from Kevin Berger and Tim Bryant.