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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How An Invitation Changed My Life - State of the Island 2013

Just over two years ago I received an invitation. It was unexpected, to be certain, and it was an invitation that actually made me begin to think more seriously about my role in this community, and the impact I could have. The invitation came from MacDonald Island Park, and it was to attend State of the Island 2011, their annual black-tie gala event.

You see MacDonald Island Park has been part of my life now for eleven years. It all began with a small ice arena and a three year old girl in a red snowsuit and tiny skates that were held onto her feet with Velcro flaps. Over time just as the facility grew so did the little girl, slowly graduating from the snowsuit into figure skating dresses, and Velcro skates into the tightly laced kind. It became visits to the Fort McMurray Public Library, and, after the expansion, time at the aquatic centre. It became driving her to "dates" at the rock climbing wall, and frozen yogurt when we needed a spot to reconnect as mother and daughter. It became a speech to RMWB city council, representing community stakeholders in the discussion about why the proposed expansion (now known as Shell Place) was important. And, in the last year, it became the place I drive to almost every single day, having accepted a job in February that introduced me to MacDonald Island Park in a far more intimate way.

This past Saturday evening I attended State of the Island once more, but this time I saw it with new eyes. It was a lovely event, as always, and perhaps even more lovely this year than any other as the field houses simply shone with pride. The guests arrived and were greeted by the silk panels from the recent Silk Caravanna art project, and by attentive staff armed with trays of champagne. And, once inside the Nexen Activity Field House they were able to watch as an artist painted a small fibreglass fox, the first to be painted in the new Miquwahkesis Project that will see many more similar fox painted, and students from across the region engaged in a project focused on the small, clever red creature that shares our home region. Guests visited and chatted and, I think, marvelled at the transformation of the field house, just as I have always done with events at MacDonald Island. Now, of course, I know the incredible effort that the employees put into these events, from the d├ęcor to the food to just cleaning a fieldhouse to transform it into a black-tie venue. These fresh eyes of mine have seen what goes on behind the scenes, and far from diminishing the experience it has simply added to it, making me realize how what I once perceived as so effortless is really a tremendous commitment of time and talent, the kind of time and talent I have seen poured into every event I have attended at Mac Island over the last few years.

There is so much to share about State of the Island, from the bright orange piano (painted by my fellow TEDx Fort McMurray alumni and gifted artist friend Lucie Bause) to all the incredible community members in attendance, all those who make life in this community better every day.

There are highlights every single year, and this year was no different, with Dave Kirschner, a man for whom I have such tremendous respect, and Ramona Morrison, a woman who has become synonymous with Fort McMurray, both being honoured as inductees to the "Walk of Honour". This induction recognizes their tremendous commitment to this community, and all the work they have done to improve life here for others, giving tirelessly of themselves to achieve it. Dave. of course, is a local businessman and regional councillor, but so much more, too, having served on more boards than I can name and having done so much for so many more than I can imagine, including being a kind man who has always encouraged me and treated me with respect - and in the last few years Dave has been the very embodiment of courage as he faces a progressive illness. Ramona too has given tirelessly of herself, always doing what she can to improve the lives of others, and impressing even those like Chef Michael Smith who sent a little video along to the event to share his thoughts on this remarkable woman. Added to all this she runs Smitty's restaurant, another place that has been part of my life here since I arrived, and having been our favourite breakfast destination for over a decade. Their recognition this year was a shining moment, to be sure, and I admit I had tears in my eyes when both names were announced as I would say these individuals are not just community builders but community founders, stewards who have seen this community through bad and good times, and who continue to give of themselves in as many ways as they can.

There was the orange jacket ceremony, of course, a moment to recognize new partners at MacDonald Island Park, the ones who commit to partnering with the facility to bring new opportunities to the community. There was the performance from the Alberta Ballet, and news of their commitment to bringing ballet north to Fort McMurray. There was the information about the Your Music Maker piano project, one that I have already written about and that involves some brightly painted pianos that are not only pieces of art but pieces of interactive music, free for all to play and enjoy. There was the announcement of additional seat reservations for Northern Kickoff, the furthest north football game in CFL history, and an event that has captured the imagination and attention of those from across the province, and even the country. There was the food, the glorious, glorious food that just keeps getting better, with a new executive chef having taken up residence in the kitchen and bringing new flavours and ideas with him. There were the announcements, about the interpretive trail and the stage at Shell Place, places that have already become close to my heart and inch ever closer to reality every day. And there was the musical performance by Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo fame, someone who brings to the stage not only talent but an impressive pedigree in the Canadian music scene. And there was the moment when everyone at my table gasped, when the soft orange lighting suddenly changed and the room began to shine and glitter in the soft fresh blue and white lights, signalling a transition from the beloved Mi Team to ONE Team, the group of employees who will take all that is best about MacDonald Island and bring it with them and new team members as the Regional Recreation Corporation takes shape and begins to operate throughout the region.

I was, in a word, speechless on Saturday evening, you see. Even while I am now a part of MacDonald Island Park what is done there continues to amaze me, just as it did two years ago when I attended my very first State of the Island - and this year it was my honour and privilege to attend this final one, as State of the Island will change just as this region and MacDonald Island has done.

Late Saturday evening found me saying good-bye to my tablemates and returning to my office. I sat there in my long purple gown, my glittery gold shoes kicked off under my desk, and I sent a few final tweets and updated the website to reflect some of the wonderful news of the night. I thought about how I once had attended events there and thought they seemed so effortless and beautiful, and then I thought about how I now know the intensity of effort and investment of time that go into them, and how now that knowledge makes me see them as even more beautiful than I did before. I picked up my shoes and headed to my car barefoot and holding my gown up off the pavement, my feet tired and sore. I locked up my office and looked across the parking lot, where I could still hear the sounds of music and an ongoing celebration, and I smiled. That night someone who knows me well and knows how highly I have always spoken of MacDonald Island Park had asked me if now that I work there if I had changed my mind, and if it was what I thought it would be. I was amused when their eyes widened as I replied that no, it was nothing like I thought it would be - and then their smile when I told them it was better, infinitely better than I could have ever imagined.

I climbed into my car, closed the door, and rolled down the window as I drove away, listening to the music spilling out of the back of the field house, and the sound of conversation and laughter - and I think I smiled the entire way home, because this was, for me, one of those magical nights in Fort McMurray, and one I will never forget. I was both a guest and a part of State of the Island 2013, and it was an honour - just as I find it an honour to be part of MacDonald Island Park, and this amazing community, every single day.

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