By Nicole Feriancek
THE DIGBY COURIER
“Did anybody die?”
“Is anyone still homeless?”
“Was everyone scared?”
Karina Pillay-Kinnee, the mayor of Slave Lake Alberta answered these, and many more questions from an enthralled group of Digby Elementary School students when she visited last week.
She spoke to 60 grade two students on Friday, Oct. 5. She came to thank them in person for helping lift spirits in Slave Lake last year, after devastating wildfires destroyed one third of the town.
“We wrote letters and drew pictures and decorated the letters with all kinds of stickers,” says Paige Ettinger, a grade two student who wrote one of almost 100 letters that were complied into a scrapbook and then mailed to the town.
“I remember it saying ‘Sorry for the fire. I hope a lot of people didn’t get hurt’,” says Paige.
Local artist Terry Gilbert iniated the project.
"I've worked for many years doing majour literacy projects with the kids in Digby," says Gilbert. "When the Slave Lake event happened, it just seemed to be a really good fit for the kids, an opportunity for the to write, and learn life lessons."
She said she along with the principal she quickly organized the project, that a friend scrapbooked it, and then the town of Digby sent it away.
She said the personal visit by the Slave Lake Mayor really affected the kids.
"She was just so good with the kids, and they all seem to respond well."
Pillay-Kinnee says it was one of the most heart-felt gestures she and the town received after the disaster.
“It was so unique and thoughtful the way they sent their words of hope and encouragement,” said the mayor. “It was so special, so special. From the moment I got it, I kept it on my desk the whole time.
“What they wrote was pretty genuine. And we’re a small town too, just like Digby, so for them to think about us, all the way across Canada, and feel like they had to do something, makes such a difference.”
Today, 80 per cent of the homes in Slave Lake are rebuilt, but the community is still healing from the disaster, she said.
Pillay-Kinnee gave a presentation at a Red Cross disaster management conference in Halifax on Thursday, Oct. 4, the day before her visit to Digby,
Don LeBlanc, the regional emergency management coordinator for Digby EMO, heard her speak at that conference.
“It was a breathtaking presentation. She had 300 people in total awe,” said LeBlanc. “She said it was her first trip to Nova Scotia, and if there was one thing she could do above all, it would be to visit a school in Digby, and then up comes this big slide that says ‘Thank you Digby’ in big letters. And I thought to myself, ‘That’s it, I know what I’ve got to do’.
LeBlanc approached her after the presentation, asked if she would come visit, and actually drove her to Digby and back to Halifax himself.
DES principal Jane Chisholm said the whole experience has been extremely meaningful for the children.
“What I liked about the idea was that it was a project that combined a lot of important skills, like creative writing, social studies, letter writing,” says Chisholm. “But it was also wonderful for the children to gain empathy through writing and it allowed them to connect with other parts of Canada.
“Seeing the children interact with Karina, and learn from this experience, to me, that’s what education is.”
Pillay-Kinnee spoke to the classes for more than half an hour, and answered every hand in the air. Before she left, she received a few small gifts including a Nova Scotian flag, learned the proper pronunciation of “scallop” and was engulfed in a spontaneous group hug.
Afterwards, she said that seeing all of the kids in person was an emotional experience.
“It was overwhelming really, I had to pull myself together a few times. They’re so sweet.”
It was a moving day for Ron LeBlanc too.
“This is just one of those days that pays for it all; pays for all the days that aren’t so good. She just affected a generation of Digby’s kids.”