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Fort McMurray's charities & services brace for an avalanche of need this Christmas

Charities and services know this Christmas is going to be hard for some Fort McMurray residents so they are doing everything they can to help.

‘If you’re struggling, we are here to help you,’ Fort McMurray food bank tells embarrassed families.

Is Fort McMurray’s population back home? Municipal estimates show a current population of about 73,500 — not far off from the pre-fire federal census. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Charities in Fort McMurray that help individuals and families at Christmas are seeing a need this year like they've never seen before. 

Last year, Santas Anonymous, one of Fort McMurray's largest holiday charity drives, filled over 600 hampers. The number might hit one thousand this year, depending on how many donations are received. 

"There's a lot more people that will be in need than there were last year so we are just trying to do the best job we can," volunteer Kael King said.

Santas Anonymous needs gift cards for teens, games, puzzles, socks, mittens, slippers for all ages, especially seniors, and cash donations to help buy grocery cards.

Student volunteers Kelsey Campbell and Kael King (L to R) from Fort McMurray's Father Mercredi High School say their Santas Anonymous charity drive has been flooded with requests for help. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

Residents in the northern Alberta city were already suffering from the effects of falling oil prices which caused thousands of layoffs. Then they were hit by the devastating wildfire in May. 

More than 2,400 homes were destroyed. Untold numbers of families still can't return to their homes due to smoke or water damage and ongoing issues with their insurance companies.

'Reach out and ask for help'

Fort McMurray's food bank has seen increased demand as well. On average, 60 new families are seeking help each month, which is higher than their average.

Despite the soaring demand and the slow economy, the food bank has seen an increase in donations this season.

On Friday, one of the food bank's truck arrived each hour filled with more donations. 

Last week's corporate charity drive also raised more money than ever before.

Fort McMurray is recovering from the effects of the wildfire that still keeps many families from returning home due to the smoke and water damage, or ongoing problems with their insurers. (David Thurton/ CBC News)

The food bank is urging families not to be embarrassed to ask for help, no matter how much their family earns.

"If you're struggling, we are here to help you. And we will do everything we can to help you," said Arianna Johnson, executive director of the Wood Buffalo Food Bank. 

"We want you to reach out and ask for that help."

Alberta Health Services has a similar message for people whose mental health hasn't been the same since the fire.

Staff anticipate a higher number of referrals this year. The stress of the fire combined with the stress of the holidays may be too much for people to handle without help. 

"When there is that expectation that people should be happier and celebrating, it could become more acutely obvious to people that they are not doing as well," said Dr. Sandra Corbett, a psychiatrist and head of mental health services for the region.

Even though the holidays are rolling in, AHS mental health teams aren't taking a vacation.

AHS is sending staff to go to where people are including grocery stores and holiday events around Fort McMurray.

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