"Operation Orange Cross" - Ft. McMurray Wildfire Disaster Relief 


On May 3rd, 2016 residents of Ft. McMurray and the surrounding area were forced from their homes under a mandatory evacuation due to wildfires consuming the area. This tragic news had our hearts and prayers going out to all those affected by the wild fires raging in the Wood Buffalo region.

Willows Construction (2001) Ltd. immediately started accepting donations of clothing, non-perishable food and children’s toys at its head office located in Drayton Valley, AB for those affected. At first what started out as a drop-off and shipment coordination point turned into so much more. In a mere 48 hours our ______sq. ft. equipment shop turned into a disaster relief centre nicknamed “Orange Cross” where evacuees could come to and grab clothes, food, water and toys for their kids. We had an outpouring of support from the community with donations and volunteers far exceeding our wildest expectations. We had over 500 evacuees come in needing supplies whereby each and everyone got what they needed, and more importantly, a hug. Tears of gratitude were frequently flowing from those evacuees that came in as well as from the volunteers as they witnessed the effect their hard work had on those around them. We cant thank our wonderful volunteers enough for everything that they did as this effort would not have been made possible without their help. In September, 2016 The Mayor of Drayton Valley presented Willows Construction (2001) Ltd. with the Mayor’s Citation of Merit because of its “Orange Cross” work during the Ft. McMurray Wildfires.

Below is an excerpt from Rachelle Willows, the wife of Bob Willows, as she explains her experience of the event:

“Today was hard, beautiful, exhausting, and inspiring. I’m going to tell you about it.

This was my third day at our shop and we have been working 12 hour days to volunteer and supply people with the essential things they need. What started out as just non-perishable food items and tooth brushes, turned into handmade stunning quilts from numerous local quilting guilds, pre-paid credit cards from local businesses for us to give to families, pristine wood bassinets, 50 back packs filled with school supplies for kids that lost their backpacks, brand new stuffed animals for kids that didn’t get to take theirs from home. The residents of Drayton Valley have gone above and beyond in their response. When I post I need size T-5 diapers, 15 minutes later I have 50 packs dropped at the door. That is the support the people of Drayton Valley are giving their Fort McMurray family.

There is a local lady Rose, from a local hotel who has rented a bus and makes trips into Edmonton to pick up evacuees and bring them out to her hotel where she has full kitchenettes for them. Then she shuttles them to us at the shop to come get anything they need. She is doing this for whoever wants to get on the bus. This is just one example of the local Heroes that are stepping up.

When people walk into to our shop we have at any one time 20 volunteers waiting to give them a piece of donated luggage or backpacks to fill with supplies. When you stop and look around there is usually always a volunteer holding a baby so the Mom can pick out baby clothes, or a volunteer hugging someone who just started crying because you handed them a new pair of socks. It is so humbling and amazing to see. And the only thing you need to have to do it is a PHD in humanity. These people need you. They need a hug. They need a quilt. They need to know you care and the people of Drayton are doing an amazing job of doing it in my opinion. (As is the rest of the province as well.)

I have met so many amazing people who have walked in the shop and just said put me to work and then spent the next 10 hours in a hot stuffy lunch room sorting and hanging clothes with 6 other people and smiling the whole time. You all are amazing and I appreciate every single one of you. None of this would have ever come together like it has without the volunteers. They have our shop running like a well oiled machine after only 72 hours. It is amazing.

Here is a couple stories from today.

I handed a little girl (5yrs) a back pack and said “you go and fill it with whatever you need”. She filled it with about 40 beanie babies (90s girls you know what I’m talking about, we got a lot donated today ?). When she saw me watching her she said she “needed them all because all of hers burned in her house.”…we shoved in 10 more and a new quilt into her back pack with the zipper bursting while I held back tears. She then put on her back pack and you could just see her relax and she started to laugh and smile. THAT was what she needed.

A little boy (grade 2) came in and I gave him an empty back pack and said the same thing “fill it with anything you want”. I watched him looking for plain scribblers and I asked him if I “could help him find anything?”. He said he “needed school supplies because his backpack got burnt.” I grabbed one of the backpacks that was filled with school supplies and asked him if this was what he needed and the relief on his face when he looked in the backpack and saw plain ol Hilory scribblers and a pencil was something I will never forget. He didn’t need a toy, he didn’t need a quilt, he needed school supplies in a backpack. THAT was what he needed.

We were just rolling our gate closed today at 4:30 and a truck pulled up with a man and woman and a little toddler. They asked if we had anything and we said yes pull in and we flipped the lights back on. Dawn, myself and Bob were left and we got them everything they needed. Diapers, strollers, food, socks etc. When I gave the lady one of the donated $100 gift cards she teared up and caused me to tear up and we hugged. Not one of those ‘tap on the back hugs’, but one of those ‘tight squeeze your lungs hugs’. I’m not a hugger but damn today I needed to hug people just as much as they needed to hug someone. The man then told me he had his 10 day old baby back at where they are staying and he came with a friend to get supplies to bring back with him. Something about these two people at the end of the day just hit my heart full on. As they were getting in their truck I ran out and said “wait I have something for you!” I had put a bag in my car a couple days ago of baby stuff that I had been saving for years for my “one-day” and I had been saving it for that special person. This guy was that person. I shoved it in his window and told him what it was and before I could tell him everything I was bawling and he was teared and we had one of those ‘squeeze your lungs hugs’. I don’t know his name but I hope his baby is wrapped up in so much stuff that I knew he needed more then me.”

– Rachelle Willows

#albertastrong #ymmfire