Moments after the wind ripped apart dozens of houses in the village of Dunrobin and several other locations across the Ottawa region last month, it also opened the doors of thousands of other homes in the neighbourhood. People rushed to the scene of the devastation with bottled water, chainsaws, casserole dishes, hampers of clothes and a myriad of useful offerings of comfort.
We see this over and over again in this country, whether it’s a flood in the Saguenay or Winnipeg or Calgary, forest fires in Fort McMurray, Slave Lake or La Ronge, or the tornadoes of Woodstock, Barrie and now Ottawa.
Two of my own children have been on the front lines of these disasters. My eldest daughter hauled about $100,00 of fine wine out of the basement of the restaurant she worked for on the banks of the Bow River before Calgary police ordered her out for her own safety. The next morning, she stood on the steps of the same restaurant in rubber boots, loudly proclaiming to a TV crew, “We will re-open, come hell or high water!” My son rushed to La Ronge with the crack Princess Patricia Regiment three years ago to fight a raging forest fire. He later confessed that you really don’t want an infantry regiment doing work that belongs to firefighters but “it was the thought that counts.”
I like to think they are operating in the tradition of a farm family that instinctively downs tools when they hear fire sirens. And my heart warms when I hear of their generosity and goodwill.
Sixty years ago, my mother took us to the scene of a devastating house fire on the Seventh line of Mono Township where we spent six months of the year. The Shaw family had been left homeless and I watched in amazement as the neighbourhood dragged a campervan onto the property and stocked it with clothes, bedding and canned goods. The family had a place to live before the fire engines left. I had no idea where all this stuff was coming from until I went to school the next Monday and saw one of the Shaw boys wearing one of my shirts. I was irritated at first, until I realized I had become a philanthropist.
I heard the news of the Ottawa tornado relief effort while I was speaking to a group of volunteers in a sports complex 200 miles away. This is the other kind of heroism that operates quietly, every single day of the year. These are the unsung people who deliver meals on wheels to shut-ins, play music in nursing homes and drive people to doctor’s appointments. The executive director of this organization stressed to her membership that it was not the number of meals delivered that really mattered. It was their voices that made all the difference to the lives of their clients. “Take the time,” she said. “That is what matters.” I was not surprised to hear that this formidable force of nearly 1,000 volunteers owed its origin to a conversation two women had over an arborite kitchen table in a farmhouse 40 years ago.
When I was working in Toronto as a young man and wondering whether anything would ever happen to me, an older person made the wise observation that I might feel better if I spent some time in the company of people who had more problems than I did. So I went to Queen Elizabeth Hospital and inquired if they needed a volunteer. They introduced me to a Parkinson’s patient named Harry. He was 83 and his wife was convalescing in another hospital after a severe stroke. His only son lived in Thunder Bay. Within 20 minutes, I learned that Harry had been a druggist on Eglinton Avenue in the neighbourhood where I was raised.
“What side of Avenue Road were you on?” I asked.
“Two blocks west,” he replied.
“The Rexall Pharmacy?”
He nodded. The very same drug store I swiped magazines from when I was 10 years old. Harry thought this very amusing and he said: “Well, this is your punishment. Now you have to come and visit the poor old druggist you plundered all those years ago.”
We laughed and bonded and I spent many of my lunch hours with Harry over the next two years. It was hard to say who was helping whom. He took me out of myself and made me feel useful. That’s what happens when you get out of bed in the morning and start looking after the life around you. Any farmer will tell you this. It gives you a sense of purpose and makes you feel important.
And it always makes the community a better place to live.