Chilliwack responded to the Fort Mac disaster with a massive outpouring of generosity and support.
Truck driver Gord VanLaerhoven came up with the idea to truck supplies up to the area where some of the 88,000 victims had been evacuated from Fort McMurray wildfires.
He told the Progress he was hoping they might at least collect enough to fill one tractor trailer with donations. He had planned to pay for the gas himself.
Vanlaerhoven, 31, asked to borrow a company truck from his boss at Bulldog Transport, who said yes right away.
“I never dreamed it would grow into something this big,” he said.
Chilliwack heard the call and came out in droves.
The far end of the mall parking lot was a complete zoo by mid-afternoon Friday.
In the end there was enough to fill four semi trucks, and the gas money was covered.
But it wasn’t just that the community was responding to the disaster. It was the strong way everyone felt such a surge of community pride.
“It was quite surreal,” VanLaerhoven said. “Especially after all of the bad stuff that had happened. This just made people feel so positive.”
People jumped into action when he put out the call online for help and donations. They started filling the truck on Thursday with the help of a forklift and several volunteers. They continued all day Friday, filling the trucks with donations.
In the end, the convoy of four semi tractor trailers full of much-needed supplies headed out of town at about 5 p.m. on Friday night with people cheering them on along the road, some pilot trucks and a police escort to the highway. They were Alberta-bound with tonnes of brand-new goods for the victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires.
It was everything from dog food, diapers, and diabetic needles. There were bed-in-bags, and pillows to palettes of water, baby formula, wipes, non-perishables, toys and much more.
He estimated it was about $300,000 worth of goods, with another $20,000 in cash.
VanLaerhoven hopped into their trucks with three other drivers, Dave Collie, Dustin VanDokkumburg, Kelby Devers. It took about 12 hours each way.
They were completely blown away by the kindness and generosity shown to them at every juncture, from free truck fuel, to meals, hugs and thank yous, all along the way.
“It was all pretty damn emotional,” VanLaerhoven said on Monday.
“What really stood out for me were the stories people told us of what they went through. So many had to flee with nothing.”
Word spread very quickly with the help of a Progress article and other posts on social media, that they were collecting for the fire victims in the mall parking lot.
The traffic was constant over two days.
After the terrible week Chilliwack had, with a couple of downtown stabbings and a train fatal, it was a soothing balm for the entire community to see the generous effort come together.
Many hearts swelled to watch a small gesture turn into a very big deal, and so much small-town pride was generated for Chilliwack in one weekend.
Kim Walker who works at Pharmasave brought diabetic needles, and a variety of personal hygiene on Friday.
“I was so happy to see so many people here,” she said.
Many people were brought to tears over this heartwarming story.
The Chilliwack men drove all night and eventually zeroed in on Leduc, Alberta, as their destination Saturday morning. They were going to unload, and then turn around, with little sleep and a couple of quick meals in them.
One of the messages, of “deepest gratitude” appeared on the page “Chilliwack for Fort Mac” from Jeremy Moon and Deidre Trottier-Moon.
“We have become overwhelmed with the love and help from the amazing people of Chilliwack,” they wrote.
“We had to leave Fort McMurray with literally the clothes on our backs. The help we have already received in the last couple days is a beautiful reminder of real people coming together in time of trouble.
“Coming into the Cottonwood mall parking lot and seeing all the people loading trucks and dropping off donations put my wife and I in tears. We were so grateful and overwhelmed and know that the people who receive those supplies are going to feel the same.”
It rejuvenated spirits to see the outpouring of support, like Ann Derouin who posted on the “Chilliwack For Fort Mac” page about how great Chilliwack is: “What I saw volunteering today rekindled my hope in humanity. To see businesses, families, people on social assistance, seniors on fixed incomes, all come together to donate to the people of Fort McMurray. As well to see so many volunteers, all with busy lives taking the time out because they care about other humans. I feel very blessed to live in such an amazing community.”
The response was really quite unbelievable, but at the same time, Chilliwack is known for its exceptionally kind heart.
“I have to say I’ve never seen anything come together like this,” he said. VanLaerhoven borrowed ideas from supporters to explain the phenomenal response.
“I think one of the main reasons why it turned out as well as it did, was the snowball effect. It takes one person to start something, then it gets bigger and bigger as people join in.
“Another is the ripple effect, like when you throw a rock in the water, and the ripples go out in all directions. Yeah, it was pretty cool.”
Does he have a message for those who donated?
“Thanks for all the support! We couldn’t have done it without you.”