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Representatives of the Trend-Arlington Community Association. Photo courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

Community Builders: These two groups were key to Ottawa’s tornado relief efforts

By Samantha Pope and United Way East Ontario on August 13, 2019


Samantha Pope is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Award program, United Way Ottawa honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone.

On September 22, when Tyler Gill opened his basement door and looked upstairs, he saw the sky where his roof had been just 20 seconds before. As a Dunrobin resident affected by the September 2018 tornadoes, Tyler was one of the many people who lost their homes.

“It felt like a train came over top of us,” Tyler said. “There was lots of banging, lots of smashing [and] glass breaking. It was a very surreal moment in our lives.”

It’s what you’d imagine a warzone would look like, added Dunrobin resident Liane Hoekstra. She recalled how it was hard to breath because of the shock she said she felt from seeing her house was no longer intact.

“It was a very surreal moment in our lives.”

In the aftermath of the September 2018 tornadoes in Ottawa, two groups stepped up to help people like Tyler and Liane: the Trend-Arlington Community Association (TACA) and West Carleton Disaster Relief (WCDR). Because of their compassion and support, these two groups were the recipients of United Way Ottawa’s 2019 Community Builder of the Year Award on May 16.

The Community Builder of the Year Award honours a person or group who exemplifies United Way’s core values through giving back, speaking up, and taking action on behalf of others. Both WCDR and TACA illustrate these core values and continue to improve the lives of people in their communities.

Immediately after devastation struck their communities, both groups quickly organized themselves to ensure the people affected by the disaster were supported and cared for. In the weeks that followed the tornadoes, the groups’ volunteers became trusted advocates for their communities.

“The remarkable thing we have been seeing is just how much my community banded together,” TACA president Sean Devine said. “We turned this community, which was already pretty tight, into a community of engaged volunteers.”

Grief and trauma counselling and many support groups were set up for adults, seniors and children, according to Sean. However, the residents of Trend-Arlington lost more than just their homes.

“If you had been here on September 20th, the day before the tornadoes, you’d see a forest full of 75-foot-high white pines,” he said. “They all got knocked down in about 90 seconds and all fell forward into the community.”

As this forest was a unique part of Ottawa and held sentimental value to the community, Sean said the community grieved for having lost the trees.

To help the community through the grieving process, Sean described how TACA held a vigil for the trees a month after the tornadoes. The vigil included songs, poems, a moment of silence, and bagpipers who led the community through the hardest hit parts of the neighbourhood.

“We wanted to show the people here who are most devastated just how much the community still cares for them,” Sean said.

Sean Devine says a few words on behalf of the the Trend-Arlington Community Association. Photo courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

“We wanted to show the people here who are most devastated just how much the community still cares for them.”

In Dunrobin, WCDR also exemplified the power of community in the wake of tragedy. The group was formed about a week after the tornadoes destroyed homes in the community, according to WCDR’s Angela Bernhardt.

“The first thing that we did was we made formal, public meetings with handouts that had all sorts of contact information,” Angela said, including the Canadian Red Cross and the Ottawa Food Bank.

Alongside this, Angela said WCDR also organized payouts to families. With money they raised, WCDR immediately gave $500 to each affected family that registered with the group.

“We want to help people until we have no more clients,” Angela added. “That’s true success.”

The meetings organized by WCDR are important, she explained, because they help people like Tyler and Liane unite with others and not feel as isolated. She said it’s a safe space where people can support each other and communicate valuable information.

“I need these meetings just to reconnect with everybody that has gone through this,” Liane said, noting how helpful the mutual support has been.

Representatives of West Carleton Disaster Relief. Photo courtesy of United Way Ottawa.

Residents in both Trend-Arlington and Dunrobin still have many hurdles to overcome. Luckily, TACA and WCDR aren’t going anywhere, and are committed to helping their communities as long as they are needed.

“Something like this changes a community forever, and I think [before] we saw that as a bad thing,” Angela said. “As time progresses, as much as it has been slow for the re-build, I truly believe that because of the connections that people make and the showing of strength, it will be forever changed for the better.”

Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. One hundred percent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.