It makes you realize how important it is to have a life as opposed to a home. And I have that much more appreciation for graduation now.
Kristin McKenzie, nursing grad
16
June
2016
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15:00
America/Tegucigalpa

Convocation helps Fort McMurray grads stay strong

They have different backgrounds and different dreams, but they have one goal in common—going home to help.

By BEV BETKOWSKI, BRYAN ALARY and MICHAEL BROWN

Convocation this week was bittersweet—but important—for a handful of nursing students from Fort McMurray.

While Kristin McKenzie, Bronwynne Baatjes and Heather Pelley were proud to don caps and gowns for their June 13 ceremony as they accepted their University of Alberta degrees at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, their hearts were back home in the theatre of Keyano College, where they’ve spent the past four years together.

They and their 23 classmates were cheated out of a May 6 hometown graduation ceremony with family and friends when a burning Fort McMurray was evacuated May 3. As they crossed the Jubilee Auditorium stage earlier this week to claim their bachelor of science degrees in nursing, they were celebrating for their fellow grads who couldn’t be there.

“There were only a few of us, but our classmates were on our minds for the whole day for sure. Graduation at the U of A was something to look forward to in what’s been a crazy month,” said Baatjes.

The trio, along with their classmates, are still digesting the sudden destruction that engulfed their hometown, but were glad to celebrate their accomplishments with a handful of friends and family last week, even though several relatives who had flown in just days before the fire to gather for the Keyano College ceremony weren’t able to attend in Edmonton.

“It makes me want to tear up thinking about it, but it is good, it is closing a chapter in my life,” Pelley said. “It’s not the way I had planned for it, but at least we are still here and it doesn’t change the fact that I worked hard for the last four years and I’m getting my degree.”

 

For McKenzie, the degree ceremony helped ease not only the loss of her family’s home to the wildfire, but the death of a cousin last month. As friends and family come together to share in her accomplishment, she’s grateful for the people around her and for the support they’ve had. “It makes you realize how important it is to have a life as opposed to a home. And I have that much more appreciation for graduation now.”

Baatjes is the first in her family to graduate from university, so has been looking forward to the ceremony. Her grandmother is flying back in from South Africa to attend, after returning home when the fire broke out. “It’s been a gruelling four years of studies and we had put a lot of hard work into our ceremony at Keyano College. The fire took that away from us, so graduation here brought a bit of excitement to what has been a terrible month.”

 

After they graduate, all three women plan to work at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, Fort McMurray’s hospital, where they want to put their new skills to work helping their community as it reboots.

Pelley, who has lived in Fort McMurray for 12 years, considers it her home. “I love the tight-knit community. Everybody is very supportive; I’ve really felt welcomed.” Grateful that her family’s house in the Wood Buffalo subdivision was left intact after the fire, she had planned to start work in the hospital’s maternity ward May 16. “I thought my life was mapped out for the first year.” Those plans are on hold—pregnant women have been warned to stay away from the city for now—but Pelley hopes to be at work by late summer or fall.

McKenzie, whose family home in Saprae Creek Estates was lost in the fire, lived in a camper with her parents in Edmonton after fleeing May 3. Born 22 years ago at the Fort McMurray hospital, she plans to now return and work there. “I’ve been asked why I don’t apply in Edmonton. It would be a great place to work, but Fort McMurray is my home and I want to help with rebuilding it. I always wanted to start my work life there, to be where my family and friends are.”

Baatjes, who also hopes to work at the hospital, stayed to help as the fire tore through her adopted city of five years. Originally from South Africa, she immigrated five years ago to join her parents in Fort McMurray. When the call to evacuate came, she and her boyfriend, a firefighter, knew they didn’t want to leave. “Fort Mac is my home in Canada. This place has been so good to me, I did not want to leave. I felt with my training, I was equipped to help.” They were there for most of May, volunteering with an emergency medical services company. “Any way I could, I just wanted to help the people of my community.”

As the new graduates return to their partially charred but reviving city with degrees in hand, they do it with pride not only in their class’s accomplishments, but also in the resiliency of their community.

“It’s just amazing. The biggest thing for me was to see how the community came together to put the pieces back together. Fort McMurray looked horrendous at first, and when we came back last week, it looked like home again,” Baatjes said. “Like it had a bit of a haircut, but welcoming.”

MBA grads flee the fire, not their city

When the fire started taking hold of Fort McMurray, U of A MBA grad Jeffrey Bowers admits he completely underestimated the gravity of the situation, even as he, his wife and their two toddlers left their home in Timberlea for a work camp north of the city.

“We left literally with a change of clothes for the kids—I didn’t even take any clothes for myself,” Bowers recalls. “Even when we were driving to camp I made mention to my wife that I think we’ll be home by tonight or tomorrow. I thought it was just more of a precaution.”

What he didn’t realize at that point—and wouldn’t for a day or two—was that homes in Timberlea were already burning. Bowers was one of the lucky ones. And though the evacuation temporarily saw them relocate to Edmonton, they’re not going anywhere in the long term.

“Fort Mac is our home. Our goal is to stick it out here, once we get back and settled. This is our home now.”

Bowers is one of 22 graduates of the U of A’s Fort McMurray MBA in natural resources, energy and environment. The three-year program sees students live and work full-time in Fort McMurray, taking classes on weekends and in intensive one-week bursts from U of A professors at Keyano College.

Bowers, who works as a regional health and safety manager for Finning Canada, was scheduled to graduate with his classmates at a special celebration in Fort McMurray on June 11. That’s been postponed, possibly until the fall, as grads pick up the pieces of their lives and help their employers resume regular operations.

When the fire prompted the closure of Highway 63 south of the city, Brayden Kijewski stayed put at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake site. For about two days he worked 18 hours a day and even slept in the office as he helped wherever possible—from operations and field work to co-ordinating work forces and the site’s eventual evacuation on June 4.

“I was pretty lucky because I didn’t see any of [the fire]. At work, I’m busy, the adrenaline’s rushing and I’m working long hours,” says Kijewski, whose home in Timberlea was fortunately spared.

Despite all the destruction, the lifelong Fort McMurray resident says he’s been touched by the “otherworldly” support for his hometown from across the country. Like many others in the program, he committed to help rebuild. He enjoys working at Syncrude and, with an undergrad in mining engineering, his MBA will help him take the next step in his career.

“My company, as well as my manager, is a huge supporter of this program. He took it in the previous cohort and I’ve since helped with the next cohort,” Kijewski says.

Some grads are committed to rebuilding even though they’ve lost everything. Kyle Gogolinski managed to evacuate to safety with his wife, Christine, eight months pregnant at the time, and their young daughter, though their family home of five years burned to the ground.

“We were at the A&W in Athabasca trying to get a bite to eat when a neighbour texted and said their place was gone. That’s basically when we had confirmation.”

Despite that loss, Gogolinski, who works at the Mildred Lake site as a team leader in process control and automation, has more pressing concerns with the imminent birth of a second child.

“The main thing is my wife is due within a week. That’s where our focus is right now,” he says, though long-term they are committed to Fort McMurray.

“We as a family want to rebuild. We’re going slowly down that path. That’s what we want to do.”

Lucky break: Grad grateful after pets, home saved

For Ashley Stovall, who graduated June 15 with a double major in psychology and sociology, the end of school meant a trip to Hawaii to celebrate her brother’s wedding before returning to her hometown of Fort McMurray to start anew.

“I was grateful that I wasn’t there for the evacuations—seeing the videos was awful enough. I kept saying, ‘I used to hang out there or I used to drive past there,’ and knowing that’s gone, nothing could have prepared me for that.”

It helped in the moment that her closest family members were with her a world away, and word from back home was the evacuation was remarkably orderly and safe, and all were accounted for.

Or almost all.

In the mad dash to get out of the way of the oncoming inferno, the Stovall family dogs—a pair of charmed bichon frises named Lucky and Molly—were left behind by the dog-sitter, who heeded warnings to evacuate immediately and not look back.

“Thankfully, one of my friends is a firefighter up there. His co-worker entered our house when he had a break and left out food and water for the dogs.”

With that, six agonizingly long days ensued as the Stovalls waited for word of a rescue. It would be another two days before they were reunited.

Fortuitously, the Stovalls managed to avoid the worst of it—the family home made it through the blaze not much worse for wear. Now, she says, the pull of home is powerful.

“I think my degree has helped me understand that this isn’t something that will affect people for a week, and it’s not that they just lost their stuff—it’s that they’re traumatized,” says Ashley Stovall, psychology/sociology grad.

“I lived there for 18 years, and every summer when I wasn’t in university I went back to live and work,” says Stovall. “I’d love to be there with my friends and my community, and actually be helping out. Even during the evacuation we wanted to be back there so bad, but there is nothing you can do when you’re not trained.”

And though she hasn’t been trained in the ways of emergency response or firefighting, Stovall says her education has served her through this crisis.

“I think I have been able to be more empathetic than maybe I would have had I taken a degree that didn’t focus on relating to others,” she says. “I think my degree has helped me understand that this isn’t something that will affect people for a week, and it’s not that they just lost their stuff—it’s that they’re traumatized. A lot of people are really struggling with this.”

In the meantime, Stovall says she intends to keep listening, stay on track to pursue a master’s degree in counselling and, soon, return to Fort McMurray.

“I want to help rebuild my hometown in a tangible way,” she says. “I really just want to get a job helping to clean or rebuild homes—be there for people in a more concrete way until I am able to be there in a more social aspect, therapy-wise.”