“We’ll get through this” is a phrase Sandon Fraser has heard repeatedly from many of the 4,000 wildfire evacuees who have registered with City of Surrey Emergency Social Services (ESS) since the ESS centre opened at Cloverdale Arena on July 18.
Fraser and Barb Baker, two of the leadership team seconded from regular Parks and Recreation positions, oversee approximately 50 security-cleared volunteers trained in ESS documentation and protocol through modified Justice Institute courses.
Both Baker and Fraser say they can’t speak highly enough of the volunteers who have stepped up to make this critical, unique undertaking work.
“Once we got started, everyone – city staff and volunteers – wanted help,” says Baker. “The volunteers have been amazing. Some have used their vacation time, others came in for an ESS shift before going off to do shifts at their regular jobs.”
Volunteer Loretta Deveau, who has a background in fundraising and administration, said, “I’m not working right now, but I don’t want to just sit around and do nothing. I want to be useful. What goes ‘round comes ‘round.” As a mom of two teens she is used to stepping up to the plate, and has been on the city volunteer list for some time.
“People are handling the stress quite well. There have been very few complaints. People appreciate the help,” she observes. Deveau also sees it as good experience for such things as earthquake preparedness, while noting that it has made her aware how much we take technology for granted. Requisitions for food, lodging, clothing and medication have to be handwritten and carefully checked, before being sent upstairs for data entry and document control by a small behind-the-scenes team.
Taka Naidu, a special education assistant with the summer off, said when she saw the news on TV she just wanted to help. After signing up by email on the city volunteer site she went over to join the lengthy volunteer line-up on July 17. “If feels good to be able to do something,” she says. “It was perfect timing for me.”
Naidu, who immigrated from Japan in 1992, was already on the city volunteer list and had worked at Canada Day and Fusion Fest. In September she will be volunteering in new program which will offer new immigrants the opportunity to practice and improve their English conversation skills.
“It’s a good feeling to get out to meet other volunteers and city staff,” she says.
“I am filled with admiration for their bravery and touched by their heartrending stories,” reports Synthia M. Ngoma who has been volunteering since July 18.
Originally from Gabon, Ngoma explains, “Volunteering is not new to me. I was gift wrapping in a mall at 15-years-old in Quebec during Christmas time for Saint-Justine Hospital.” Being fluent in French, she volunteered as a French tutor animator during summer classes for Alliance Française de Vancouver, and after moving to Surrey two years ago volunteered with Surrey Clean Sweep Week, Earth Day, Canada Day 150 and the Francophone Association of Surrey at Fusion Festival.
“Volunteering keeps me connected to people I share the city with,” she says. “It opens my eyes to the real needs of the city and allows me to make concrete and collective action in order to better each citizen’s life. Through volunteering I’ve met incredible people. We learn a lot from each other, appreciate each other, and develop various professional skills. It is a great experience.”
Brenda Dudfield, a Surrey Arts Centre volunteer and lifelong Girl Guides volunteer in Britain and Canada, came onboard with ESS 10 days ago. Because the system is evolving and constantly being refined she’s been impressed with how readily staff have accepted volunteres’ suggestions. “It’s a cohesive group,” she says. “Everyone works so well together.”
As enthusiastic as volunteers are, Sandon Fraser and Barb Baker are very aware that burnout can be a real problem. “Sometimes just listening, not rushing, and speaking slowly is key to helping clients,” explains Baker, “but it can be emotionally challenging and stressful for volunteers, too.” She urges volunteers to take care of themselves, and take frequent breaks.
In addition to individual volunteers, businesses have donated supplies, or practical help.
Salvation Army volunteers have cheerfully supplied complimentary refreshments and lunches for four weeks, and intend to continue as long as required.
Red Cross, Service Canada, the Ministry of Children and Families, ICBC, and other services are either on site, or can be contacted.
Even family pets are remembered thanks to CDART, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team. Food, treats, and grooming needs, are clearly much appreciated.
The Emergency Social Services centre will remain open as long as needed. Hours may be subject to change. Evacuees requiring information can call 1-800-663-3456.
For those wishing to volunteer for ESS, or any other city event, go to City of Surrey ‘My Volunteer’ website for details.
Ursula Maxwell-Lewis is a retired Black Press managing editor. @YouTravel