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Diocese’s $100,000 grant helps youth in Fort McMurray

By Martha Holmen and Stuart Mann

The Diocese of Toronto has given $100,000 to the Diocese of Athabasca to help the residents of Fort McMurray rebuild their lives after a devastating wildfire swept through the community last May.

The diocese had considered giving the grant last year but was asked by the Bishop of Athabasca, Fraser Lawton, to wait until an assessment was done of the needs of the community and his diocese. About one-fifth of the housing in Fort McMurray was burnt down. With a population of 85,000, it is the largest community in the diocese, located in northern Alberta.

The devastating wildfire destroyed about one-fifth of the housing in Fort McMurray. Photo by Aboluay, via Wikimedia Commons.

The gift comes from the Diocese of Toronto’s Ministry Allocation Fund, 10 per cent of which is tithed to projects or ministries outside the diocesan budget. Previous tithe grants have included $100,000 each for the rebuilding of the cathedrals in Iqaluit and Christchurch, New Zealand, $100,000 for suicide prevention programs in the North, $500,000 for refugee sponsorship matching grants, and $100,000 for a Habitat for Humanity build in Scarborough.

“The good news came right during Holy Week,” says Bishop Lawton. “There have been some thoughts in the last few months of things we’d like to do.” There are two Anglican churches in Fort McMurray, St. Thomas and All Saints. Members of both parishes have been working together for many months to decide how to use the funds they’ve received.

Through those conversations, youth and young adults have emerged as a group in need of particular care as they and their families rebuild their lives. “Coming back and living through the months of recovery time, those things start to weigh. You don’t have a home, you don’t have all those things you had,” says Bishop Lawton.

With the funds received from the Diocese of Toronto and others across the country, the churches have been able to set up a joint project with The Bridge, a local radio station. “The idea is that they are going to share an employee who will spend about half his time at the radio station, specifically working with youth in terms of song-writing, recording, that sort of thing,” says Bishop Lawton. “This is something that the radio station was not able to do, they didn’t have the funding for it. Because of what we’ve received, we’re able to support that.”

The hope is that this kind of program will give young people some tools to deal with the ongoing trauma of the fire. “One of the things we’ve discovered is just how absolutely draining it is, and how hard it is to just get things back to functioning in some way,” says Bishop Lawton. “This is the use of music as a way to express themselves and a chance to try out their hand at different skills.”

The rest of the employee’s time will be spent directly in the two Anglican churches, continuing to help youth and young adults. The churches already share a youth group of junior high and high school students. “The anticipation is that the person will be able to spend some time with them and help us in getting this well established in a longer term,” says Bishop Lawton. “We know from experience and we’re seeing that it’s something that takes a lot of time, and so we’re looking at this as a long-term sort of project.”

The agreement with The Bridge will be set up for two years initially, with the possibility of an ongoing ministry in the churches beyond that time. Bishop Lawton says he and the Anglicans in Fort McMurray are grateful for the support to make that happen. “It’s overwhelming and very encouraging,” he says. “The gift opens all kinds of doors for us. Instead of saying, ‘If only we could,’ we’re saying, ‘Now we can, so what will we do?’.”