Impromptu barbecue organized by local MLA Leela Aheer and her husband

When Malkeet Aheer answered a phone call from his wife on May 3, he was not prepared for the news that she had for him.

In tears, Leela Aheer, the Wildrose MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View, explained that her colleague Brian Jean (MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin and leader of the Wildrose) had to rush home from the legislature to check on his home and gather belongings.

Portions of Fort McMurray were in flames, the entire city at risk while nearly 90,000 raced to safety as the province, and the nation, looked on.

Malkeet Aheer, who, along with his wife, and his sister Parveen, had lost his home in a fire in 2004, immediately felt compelled to pitch in with relief efforts.

Over 200 volunteers offered their services, serving up burgers and hotdogs at the Chestermere Recreation Centre to over 1,200 folks from Chestermere and surrounding area, at a May 13 barbecue and silent auction in support of those suffering after the Fort McMurray fires. Photo by Michaela Ritchie“I want to send money, send supplies, we’ll pack up the truck-trailers and get a bunch of guys organized, and we’ll head up there,” he told his wife.

However, with no personnel allowed within city limits who were not a part of the official evacuation or fire crews, Leela knew they would have to find another way to help.

Ultimately, the pair decided on hosting a fundraiser in Chestermere on May 13. Malkeet called around to friends and local business owners, and before long, volunteers were signing up in droves.

“I reached out to my sister, and to these men who I consider brothers, and said, ‘How do I do this?’ I didn’t say I need your help, but they stepped up and they said, ‘Malkeet, if you didn’t ask us, we would be offended.’”

Malkeet says that kind of community fellowship is precisely what Chestermere is all about.

“What we were able to pull off on Friday, on such short notice, once again reassured me of why I live here,” he said.

Emilie Young, a volunteer from the local branch of YELL (Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning) mans the bouncy castle with coworkers Shaun and Sunjay as part of the festivities offered at the Chestermere fundraiser. Other activities included face painting, and photo ops with popular Disney characters Spiderman and Cinderella. Photo by Michaela RitchieBy May 6, the Aheers estimated, by the sheer volume of responses they were getting from people wanting to help, that the event would bring in approximately 500 people. However, that number more than doubled by May 13, the day of the fundraiser, to over 1,200.

Attendees paid $10 per individual ticket, or $25 for families, and were treated to barbecued grub and live music courtesy of local artists. None of the participating vendors were paid for their time, nor did they charge for their services, but donations were encouraged by all, as noted by the Red Cross bins beside every booth.

By the end of the night at the Chestermere Recreation Centre, the event raised nearly $26,000.

Emilie Young, a member of YELL (Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning) who volunteered at the event, and has family staying in Edmonton after the wildfires destroyed their home, was ecstatic by the effort shown by her fellow Chestermere residents.

Former Chestermere-Rocky View MLA and Global Calgary morning news anchor Bruce McAllister made an appearance at the event with his wife, Lisa, and their children, in tow; he was more than happy to come out and support his former opponent, Wildrose MLA Leela Aheer, who, together with husband Malkeet, spearheaded the fundraiser. Photo by Michaela Ritchie“I knew we would have a good turnout, but even this is way more than I anticipated, just the amount of people and the donations I’ve personally seen coming in, it just makes my heart happy!”

Young, who has lived in Chestermere all her life, says this sort of effort is not unexpected from residents. Despite its growing population, Chestermere has retained the smalltown, community feel it became popular for. Everyone knows everyone, and when tragedy strikes, everyone is there to lend a hand.

“We’ve always felt like the place, and the province, that when something like this happens, we jump in and the question is always ‘Well, what do you need? Do you need water? Food? Shelter?’

“Even when the floods happened, first the ones in Calgary, and then the ones in Chestermere just last year, we’re the community that says, ‘Okay, let’s forget about everything else, what do you need help with?’”

According to Malkeet Aheer, the money raised in Chestermere will likely be used to transport supplies to help repair Fort McMurray, as well as purchase gift cards to alleviate some of the financial burden evacuees are facing in their current states of displacement. Photo by Michaela RitchieFormer Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Bruce McAllister echoed these sentiments, saying on the day of the fundraiser, “It’s always so good to see people coming together like this when that sort of thing happens.”

The event raised $25,500, which will be donated to the Canadian Red Cross and matched dollar for dollar by both the provincial and federal governments, bringing the final total for this relief effort to more than $75,000. Though those dollars are helpful, Malkeet Aheer says that, above all, what is important is the message it sends to the citizens of Fort McMurray.

“I just wanted [the Fort McMurray evacuees] to know, even though we can’t stop their suffering, we can hold them on their feet while they are suffering — we can hold them so they don’t fall down.”

mritchie@cjournal.ca