Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Do They Know It's Christmas? - Santas Anonymous and Fort McMurray

There are days when I feel a special post is necessary. These are days that have special significance, perhaps only to me, or perhaps to a far greater number of people. As I sat in my living room last night, surrounded by the soft glow of Christmas lights, I knew I wanted my final post before Christmas to reflect the true nature of generosity, the real spirit of Christmas, and the genuine quality of this community. And so I knew I had to write about an initiative in this community organized and run by high school students. I knew I had to write about Santas Anonymous.

Santas Anonymous, as many of you know, is operated by students and staff at Father Mercredi High School. The program has been in place for many years now, and for many years it has provided Christmas to those who otherwise may not experience it. Last year was my first taste of the event, as while I had donated before it was the first time I had attended packing day. This year I attended packing day again - but this year I also volunteered to do deliveries on Friday, December 21st. After my experience last year with the energy and intensity of packing day I knew I wanted to do more, and so this year I did.

I needed a partner, as deliveries must be done by two people, so I put the call out on Twitter, and was delighted when my friend Matt answered. Not only did he volunteer he also volunteered the huge cube truck he uses for his business, which would allow us to have quite an enormous sleigh for Santas deliveries. I was excited about doing the deliveries, and having Matt's company as we get along tremendously well, and I knew it would be a good day.

I arrived at Father Mercredi early on Friday, and found the parking lot almost full - despite school having ended for Christmas break the day before. You see, all these students and staff give freely of their personal time, putting in late nights and early mornings. And, on this final day, they gave up their first day of vacation to ensure that others would experience Christmas, too.

I wandered through the hallways of the school, empty and quiet, and then into the gym, which was bustling with students and parcels and mandarin orange cartons and large frozen turkeys. I narrowly escaped being mowed down by a blue cart loaded with gifts and a young student in an elf hat, which made me realize I was in the middle of a very busy day.

This year the students packed over 500 hampers. Hampers were flown to Fort Chipewayan, as the winter road is not yet open, and trucked to Conklin and Janvier and Fort McKay and Anzac. From that little gym hampers flew in all directions, stuffed with gifts and food and love. It was an amazing thing to witness once again, and I watched as they bustled about, intent on their work.

Last year I wrote that these students likely have no idea of the true significance of what they are doing, and I continue to believe that. I suspect they have an inkling, but they are so young I also suspect they cannot know what it is like to be unable to provide gifts for your children, or food for your table. I suspect they know they are doing a good thing, but I think they do not realize that what they are doing embodies all that is good about us. I suspect they do not know that I think they are heroes - and angels. These students are the future of this world, and in these capable, giving, generous hands we are safe. In these hearts that look to the good of others and choose to make a difference we will find hope. In these young people I see all that is best about our community, and our world. To me, these students are what I love about Fort McMurray - and they are what inspire me to spread the word about this place to the world, to show everyone that cares to read or listen why we are special.

Matt met me at about noon, some helpful elves loaded up our truck, and we hit the road, Matt driving and me navigating. I won't tell you much about where we delivered to, or who. Suffice to say I saw gratitude in some eyes, and surprise in others. I saw something else, too. I saw people in this community who struggle, and I saw their eyes light up when they realized that they are not forgotten - that someone has noticed them, and someone cares. I saw the impact the students' work makes in the lives of others, and while I only had a momentary glimpse I know it goes far deeper, and right into the hearts and souls of those touched.

We finished our deliveries quickly, as Matt is an incredibly efficient sort, and decided to stop for lunch, where we discussed musicians and the local political scene and the last year in the community and friends we share in common. We hopped back into the truck and headed back to Father Mercredi and found it almost empty, all the hampers delivered, and people beginning to tidy up. I said good-bye to Matt and headed to my car, but before I could turn the key he texted and said he had one last delivery - would I come? Of course I ran back to his truck, and found it being loaded up with box after box after box, all toys destined for a local children's organization. And so Matt and I did one final delivery, bringing more toys - and accompanying joy - to one of my favourite local non-profits.

I don't know exactly what to say about delivering for Santas Anonymous. It was one of those moments in my life that is a bit beyond words, because there is the surface meaning, the task of the deliveries, and then there is the underlying true meaning of it all. After all, Matt and I were just the delivery people, and while we got to see a tiny bit of the impact I knew the work that had gone into packing each hamper, and getting all the donations, and sorting all the food, and everything else. Behind every single hamper and box and gift was a tremendous amount of work - and love. With every delivery there was something else. There was hope.

Matt dropped me off back at my car, and I turned the key. I sat there for a bit, quietly absorbing it all yet again as I so often do when I finish these things, while I try to sort it all out in my head. Earlier that day I had been approached by two young women in the gym at Father Merc. They were student leaders, one who has now gone on to university (and yet still chose to spend one of her precious days off at Santas Anonymous). They had asked me if I was McMurray Musings, and then they thanked me for the blog post from last year. The one who has graduated told me that she has gone on to journalism school, and that she is writing a piece about Highway 63 - and that her Google searches always bring up my name, which reminded me of how this past year my life has become intrinsically linked to that little northern ribbon of road. I gave her my card and told her that if she needs any help to call me (and I hope she does, actually). And then I told them something else. I told them that, at the risk of making myself sound old, I wanted them to know what a difference this program makes in the lives of others. I told them that I didn't think they even understood it yet, but that they are changing lives. I think they thought I meant the lives of those who receive the hampers for Christmas, but I don't mean just them. They changed my life, too, because in those passionate and driven young students I see inspiration. I see a reason to continue doing what I do. They, and all the people like them in this community, are the ones who inspire my passion, who give me the vision and drive to write. They have changed my life, too, and while I am grateful for all they have done for those in this community who struggle I am equally grateful for what they have done for the heart of one writer who loves this community with an intense ferocity.

And so to the students and staff at Father Mercredi I say thank you - thank you for allowing me to be involved in Santas Anonymous. Thank you for your generousity - and your inspiration. And to the entire community of this region I say thank you - for supporting organizations like Santas Anonymous, and for being a place that is so very, very easy to write about. Every single day you give me a reason to write, a reason to trumpet about this wonderful place - and a reason for my heart to sing. Every day you, the people of this community, remind me of why I love this place - and why I am so very, very proud to call it home. Merry Christmas, Fort McMurray - and thank you.

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