Montreal

'The community can rebuild': West Island Assistance Fund vows to rise from ashes

The West Island Assistance Fund set up temporary offices Tuesday morning after a fire gutted its main building — destroying office computers, its thrift store and toys collected for children for the holiday season.

Organization will need cash donations in months to come, board chair says

Monday's fire destroyed the 50-year-old organization's offices, including toys collected for children in need. Michael Labelle talks about what comes next. 1:39

The West Island Assistance Fund has already started the arduous task of rebuilding after a fire ripped through its headquarters Monday — destroying toys for children, computers and a thrift store.

"We lost everything yesterday," board chair Michael Labelle told CBC Montreal's Daybreak Tuesday morning.

"Our computers, our servers, our records — everything. So we need to get back up and running just on that level, and then we'll look through what we need to do to go forward."

Located in the Montreal borough of Pierrefonds-Roxboro on Centre Commercial Street, the organization has been helping families and individuals in need for more than 50 years.

It offers food relief and other social services to an estimated 650 families.

Its food bank, located a block away from the office, was spared. However, the office was destroyed, along with a thrift shop which sold clothing and other goods at discount prices — revenue which accounted for half of the agency's operating budget.

What was left of the two-storey commercial building was demolished Tuesday for safety reasons

The West Island Assistance Fund's headquarters was destroyed by Monday's fire. Whatever remained was demolished for safety reasons Tuesday. (Alexandre Letendre/Radio-Canada)

Toys were to be handed out next week

The loss couldn't have come at a worse time. 

The West Island Assistance Fund has an annual tradition of collecting hundreds of new toys for Christmas — toys that are donated by businesses and individuals throughout the year. 

Hundreds of donated toys were on hand, waiting to be distributed to about 100 families next week. All were destroyed.

Hundreds of new toys donated by businesses and individuals were lost in the fire. The toys were to be given to about 100 West Island families. (Alexandre Letendre/Radio-Canada)

"You never want it to happen in the first place, but the timing is really horrible," said board member Yves Leroux.

Leroux said it's still not clear how the fire started, but it is known it originated in the basement around noon, when the building was evacuated.

The fire was quickly extinguished by Montreal firefighters, who have a station right next door to the office. Firefighters told staff it was safe to return to work, and everybody went back inside, Leroux said.

At around 2 p.m., the smell of smoke again permeated the air. The flames spread quickly, roiling out of the building and sending up a thick, black cloud of smoke. The fire wasn't back under control until roughly 5 p.m.

"The whole building was engulfed," Leroux recounted. "The fire was in the walls."

Now with the help of the borough, the community and partnering non-profit groups, the West Island Assistance Fund (WIAF) is working to get back on its feet in time for the holidays.

"Not even 12 hours later, we've set up temporary offices right next to our food bank," said Leroux.

Cash needed in months to come

Making sure the food bank and food basket program are up and running will be the priority, said Labelle.

He said staff backed up the contact information of those who signed up for the Christmas food baskets distributed every year, but certain systems, like their phones, still aren't operational.

Michael Labelle, the West Island Assistance Fund's board chair, said the priority is getting the food bank up and running. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

While varying types of donations have been pouring in, food is not on the organization's immediate wish list. 

"My big preoccupation is: where are we going to be in February or March?" he said. "[Cash] donations are really what we need, because we just lost half of our operating income to pay salaries."

Leroux said the organization also needs non-food items, such as diapers and other household goods. 

Borough, charities stepping in

Pierrefonds-Roxboro Mayor Jim Beis said the city will also make sure WIAF has space in the Gerry-Robertson Community Centre that it can use, at least in the short-term, as it gets back on its feet.

"Standing in front of the old building this morning and seeing it completely destroyed is a terrible sight for us to see," he said.

"This will be something that we'll look back on as being a sad moment but, like we've done before, I think that the community can rebuild."

Pierrefonds-Roxboro borough Mayor Jim Beis said it was terrible to see the destroyed building. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Beis said that residents have already been "bombarding" the borough on social media asking what they can do to help.

The borough has partnered with West Island Community Shares to organize a toy drive to replace those that were lost.

They are asking for new toys, intended for kids six and younger, and which don't require batteries. The toys can be dropped off at the WIAF food bank (21 Centre Commercial Street), the West Island Community Shares headquarters or at CEGEP Gérald-Godin.

The drive will run until Dec. 16.

Beis also said the borough is ready to streamline rebuilding efforts and permits, should the WIAF decide to rebuild in the same location.

With files from Kate McKenna, Jay Turnbull and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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