Edmonton

Fort McMurray evacuee starts donation centre to help other evacuees

Billy Martin didn’t set out to start a donation centre in the midst of the Fort McMurray flooding, but that’s exactly what he did.

Billy Martin just wanted to make some sandwiches for first responders

The donation centre got started when Billy Martin took it on himself to make some sandwiches for first responders in Fort McMurray. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Billy Martin didn't set out to start a donation centre during the Fort McMurray flood, but that's exactly what he's done.

On Monday at 4:30 a.m., Martin woke up to the police knocking on his door, urging him to evacuate his downtown home after an ice jam caused the river to overflow into Fort McMurray's lower townsite. 

Martin went to his restaurant, Sweet Meats Sandwich Bar, to make 20 sandwiches for firefighters, police and first responders. 

That turned into 300 sandwiches for evacuees. 

And that, in turn, became stacks of donations from people all over Fort McMurray. 

"Before half an hour came, we had a pile blocking the front door, like we couldn't store it," said Martin.

Now Martin has opened up a donation centre inside one of the bays at the Summit GM car dealership. More than 60 cars idle outside, waiting to pick up food, diapers, hygiene products and toys.

Evacuees don't have to get out of the car to pick up their goods. It's a drive-thru system to help maintain physical distancing. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

The centre has dozens of volunteers directing drivers, filling up cars with goods and sanitizing donations. 

"It's exhausting but you go home at night and you realize the good you've done," said Martin. 

The donation centre has helped hundreds of people, even thought it has only been open since April 27. 

Companies are pitching in to help as well: 4 Seasons Moving is helping with transportation and storage, WCP Emergency Response Team helped Martin start the centre, and Proserve DKI, a cleaning and restoration service, is professionally cleaning all donated clothes and bedding.

"We're helping families of eight … all the way up to a single guy who doesn't have a toothbrush to go to work," Martin said. 

The centre has a drive-thru system, so people never need to leave their vehicles and the volunteers can maintain physical distancing.

Jay Woolner, left, and Billy Martin. Martin says Woolner helped him start the donation centre in Fort McMurray. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"These people are waiting in line for two hours to get help, which tells you how significant and important it is."

Muhanad Musaid has four young children, and right now he doesn't know if the apartment building he lives in has flooded. 

He lives on the fourth floor and had to evacuate on Sunday night. 

On Wednesday, Musaid spent an hour waiting in the donation line so he could pick up toys, cleaning supplies, diapers and wipes. 

"They even wanted to offer me more but I just came here to get what I needed," said Musaid. 

"I'm grateful. Fort McMurray, they're always standing together, with the fire and now with this. It's a great city." 

Some evacuees are volunteering at the donation centre as a way to keep busy, and keep their minds off of the flooding. 

Cars lined up down the road for the opportunity to get a few necessities from the donation centre. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Kwunnie Uthaichaloen owns a condominium on the third-floor of her building. She said it looks like the building is dry, but she's worried water got into the underground parking garage. 

"It's like a nightmare every day, every night and I can't sleep. My hand can't get away from the phone to check Facebook to get an update," she said. 

She took a week off of work because she's too stressed to focus. 

"A few days ago, I thought too far. And it drives me crazy," said Uthaichaloen. 

"We just need to be strong. We've already been through the wildfire and we passed it. So this time, we can do it again."

Soleil Matteau-Gonthier and her cats evacuated to a Fort McMurray hotel room on Sunday night. 

She said she was lucky to leave when she did. The water was right next to her building and the sewers were backing up. 

Kwunnie Uthaichaloen sanitizes toys at the donation centre. (Jamie MAlbeuf/CBC)

"If I would've waited another hour, I don't think I would've been able to take my car out."

Matteau-Gonthier said she couldn't just sit in a hotel room, she wanted to get out and do something.

"I'd rather help other people instead of just kind of sitting in the hotel room and realizing what my situation is," said Matteau-Gonthier.

"It'll sink in when I show up at home and everything is in shambles." 

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