Mount Royal rolls out the welcome mat for Fort McMurray

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Fort McMurray residents Faisal and Afshan Butt, and their four kids: Ibrahim, Yahya, Khansah and Ismail are staying on campus until they are allowed to re-enter their city. ~ Photo by Christina Riches

How Albertans displaced by the wildfires are finding community on campus

Mount Royal University has become more than just an emergency shelter for hundreds of Fort McMurray residents forced to flee their fire-hit city. The campus is bustling with activity in the sometimes sleepy month of May as guests get settled in their temporary digs.

In co-ordination with the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), Mount Royal has housed upwards of 500 people in the residence buildings any given time since Mother's Day. Most of the tenants are young families who appreciate the comforts of having their own living space, in comparison to group lodging alternatives.

Faisal Butt and his family of six are staying in one of the four-bedroom units in West Residence. They arrived on campus at midnight one evening, shortly after Mount Royal opened up its welcome centre and were relieved to find suitable accommodations after a lengthy search.

"We weren't finding anything, so the kids had to sleep in the van. Finding a bed was a big deal," said Butt, a journeyman who fixes heavy equipment at an oil sands mining operation.

"We are grateful to have a roof over our heads."

Now, the family eats meals together at the cafeteria, plays soccer and enjoys walks around Charlton Pond in the Gauthier Courtyard. During the day, Butt's older kids study in the Library under the watchful eye of a teacher from their Islamic school in Fort McMurray.

Although grateful for his current housing, Butt admits he's eager to return home and get back to work.

"Life has kind of stopped right now," he said.

The Mount Royal community has stepped up to help ease a difficult transition.

President David Docherty thanked the many employees who contributed to Mount Royal's wildfire relief efforts. Docherty acknowledged the commitment shown by those working tirelessly to maintain a welcoming environment.

"I'm so proud of how our community has rallied to support these families and individuals in a time of extraordinary need," he said. "This is the type of spirited response that Mount Royal is known for."

The Residence Services group, in particular, has worked around-the-clock to meet the ever-changing needs of the University's guests.
In addition to housing, here are some of the ways Mount Royal has embraced its northern neighbours:

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Mehar Rashid, a teacher and vice-principal from Fort McMurray's Composite High School, turned an on-campus computer lab into a classroom for students from Fort McMurray. ~ Photo by Bryan Weismiller

Beginning at 11 a.m. and finishing at 2 p.m., Study Time currently offers 32 displaced children the opportunity to stay academically sharp. Located in Mount Royal's Library, students ranging from the first to eleventh grade, with one preschooler, continue to learn with Canadian and Alberta curriculum-based work books.

The Study Time project is run and overseen daily by Mehar Rashid, a teacher and vice-principal from Fort McMurray's Composite High School.

With the help of four volunteers daily, Rashid is filling a much-needed void for many of Mount Royal's new residents.

"Before you saw students stressed out," says Mehar who's called Alberta home for the past eight years since arriving from Ontario. "I asked if they planned on going to outside schools. They were quite reluctant."

Citing troubles and challenges with making friends and not having books, backpacks or clothing, many of the students and their parents deemed their education to be complete for now, with a return to class in the fall.

"Some parents were asking for suggestions. The parents asked me a couple of times, what to do? And I was suggesting home school or I can help them."

Help them she has, thanks to Beverly Van Horn, access supervisor at the Library. The 32 students now have a dedicated room, technology and support staff helping them prepare for next year's academic objectives. Mehar has the students working off next year's curriculum to help them prepare.

"I told students to buy for next year. If they are in Grade 3 currently they are using grade four work books," says Mehar. "It's quite challenging for them. They are liking it and learning lots."

This simple gesture has provided lessons and enlightenment to students who are currently lacking day-to-day normality and structure.

Mehar first stayed with her children in a motel before arriving at Mount Royal's campus, seeking a sense of community. She admits this experience has been a very trying time. For herself and the remaining guests, constant wondering of where to go and when they will be able to return home has been demanding. But this experience has not been without positives.

"I would like to say thank you to Mount Royal University. They have been very helpful in terms of providing the library, this facility and residence to people," says Mehar, who says she regularly sees kids coming to her makeshift classroom smiling and excited to be there.
ConservatoryWhen 13-year-old Kristen Tuico boarded an emergency flight to Calgary, she left behind all the comforts of home. Of all the items she could've hoped to bring, one simply wouldn't fit in the overhead storage compartment - her beloved stand-up piano.

Tuico spent a full week away from the ivories while her family found temporary housing. The wait was tough for the devoted young musician.

Over the past four years, she's taken classical music lessons, played in a children's church choir and even practised other instruments and genres in her spare time. To compound matters, the evacuation orders came as she was gearing up to represent her city at a provincial music festival.

Once the Conservatory at Mount Royal University learned of Tuico's predicament, they readily opened up a practice space room at the Taylor Centre for the Performing Arts.

"MRU has been great to us and we are so happy for everyone's help," said her mother, Lorna Tuico. "Thank you to all the people who are willing to help Kristen with her piano and for giving us supplies to keep on going."

Many more live music lovers were also in luck. Complimentary concert tickets were made available for shows at several venues on- and off-campus, including the TransAlta Pavilion, Nickle Theatre and Jack Singer Concert Hall.
RecreationMRU Recreation is providing free memberships to guests, and more than 100 folks have already taken advantage of full access to all the amenities of the facility, says Dana Heise, Recreation Marketing and Communications Supervisor.

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Emily Teppenahuer, shift lead, Mike Stacey, CSA and Paul Manning-Hunter, team lead, are just a few of the welcoming faces at MRU Recreation's front desk. ~ Photo by Michelle Bodnar

Heise used one couple as an example of the importance of staying active.

"Keeping that regular, daily part of their routine was key to maintaining their mental health, and they are very grateful to be here," she said.

Some guests have signed up for climbing wall classes, and others are using the pool. Children have even taken their swim tests at the aquatics centre, and family swim times are scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and this holiday Monday.

"Our staff have been really accommodating, and they want to make our guests feel comfortable and welcome in their time here," says Heise.

Paul Hunka, Aquatics and First Aid Team Lead, met an adult evacuee looking for swimming lessons. Although everything was booked up full until August, Hunka made extra space - and at no cost.

"As long as he's here, he's more than welcome to come," he said.

Recreation also opened up some family gym time for guests to play basketball, volleyball or just run around.

The Calgary Minor Soccer Association has also donated a number of soccer balls, which are now located in the West Residence reception area, and are doing their best to place children wishing to play with an existing team during their time here.
Massage servicesMount Royal's Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension's Massage Therapy Program are treating guests to two drop-in massages, as well as free massage gift certificates to their onsite student-run practicum clinic, open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings all summer.

"The massage therapy program has strong community values as part of its teachings and throughout the year we provide free massages on campus as well as off campus to different organizations," said Gillian Lebel, Program Coordinator for Community and Health Studies. "Once we learned the evacuees were staying with us at MRU, the students were eager to help in any way they could."

Second-year student massage therapy student Erica Andries has been providing services at the clinic, and says that massage is a great way to manage tension and anxiety.

"The therapeutic touch, which releases endorphins, is really great for somebody undergoing stress," Andries said.

"We also do an initial interview, and even just asking about what's going on in their lives can get the client talking about things they may not normally talk about. So even speaking about it is therapeutic."

Food services

With final exam season in the rearview mirror, Lars Fredborg and his crew at Dana Hospitality were just winding down on-campus food services when they were notified of the influx of patrons headed their way.

Fredborg compared the full-throttle response to making the switch from driving down a township road to hitting the highway.
"… in traffic, in a Yugo," he said, with a smile.

Culinary staff cook up three fresh meals at select times each day, while offering an earlier breakfast of cold cereal, fruit and milk for students busing to school. An estimated 90 per cent of guests have requested halal food, which required significant adjustments up the supply chain.

By all accounts, the Dana team rose to the occasion. Fredborg, a self-described cheerleader who supervises operations, says his team has done a "fantastic job" in meeting the challenges.

Being on the front-lines of food services, Fredborg understands the important role that food plays in daily life.
"It's all about breaking bread with your family," he said. "No matter what culture you're in, it is a defining part of the day. That's No. 1."

May 20, 2016 -Compiled by Bryan Weismiller, Jonathan Anderson and Michelle Bodnar