1 year after N.S. girl killed at Christmas parade, gift to charity creates 'glimmer of hope'
A Newfoundlander's act of charity is comforting MaCali Cormier's family and helping orphans in Thailand
The Facebook message came in to Rollie Hannem's phone moments after he had dropped his mother-in-law off at her home following church.
It was two days before Christmas. The guidance counsellor and former teacher read the message, then sat in his car and wept.
"It was just one of those moments in life that you don't forget," he says.
It had only been a month since Hannem's four-year-old granddaughter, MaCali Cormier, had been killed Nov. 24, 2018, during a Christmas parade in Yarmouth, N.S., when she fell under a float carrying some of her pre-primary classmates.
The horrifying nature of the death made it international news, prompting an outpouring of support from people around the world.
Among the people who reached out was Greg Roberts, a St. John's entrepreneur best known for revitalizing the Mary Brown's fast-food franchise. He had been a student of Hannem's at R.W. Parsons Collegiate in Roberts Arm, N.L., in the 1980s.
Roberts contacted his former teacher by Facebook messenger, and what he wrote that day last December provided MaCali's family with a gift that "started to bring us back up," Hannem says.
Roberts asked if he could make a donation to an orphanage in Thailand in MaCali's memory.
Hannem showed the message to his wife, Beth, and together they cried. The gesture had provided a "glimmer of hope" at a time of darkness.
"I'm just blown away by his kindness," says Hannem. "I don't think he realized just the impact that it would have."
For Beth, she could take solace in a gift that "truly captured her spirit" — MaCali's helpful, caring and loving nature. The eldest child of Jocelyn LeBlanc and Matthew Cormier, MaCali was "a little mom" to her siblings Tessa and Matthew, and was often seen cuddling or feeding her little brother. Jocelyn is Beth Hannem's daughter.
"We can't go back. We must move forward one day at a time, one step at a time," says Beth.
Today, thanks to Roberts, there is now a new medical clinic up and running at Agape Home, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The orphanage, where 100 children live, was founded by Roy and Avis Rideout, Pentecostal missionaries from Newfoundland. Avis is from Roberts's hometown of Triton.
While it was "a little difficult" to accept a gift in memory of a young child who died tragically, Avis says it's making a difference in the lives of kids, many of whom are living with HIV, or were abandoned by teenaged moms or whose parents are in jail.
Parade safety changes
MaCali's death stirred up a debate across the Maritimes around the safety of Christmas parades. While the Town of Yarmouth opted to hold a Christmas festival instead of a parade this year, other municipalities devised new rules. Glace Bay, N.S., banned nighttime parades, while in P.E.I., Charlottetown and Summerside took safety measures such as installing extra traffic barricades and banning candy-throwing.
But as the family comes to grips with the first anniversary of her death this weekend, Rollie Hannem says all that is "superficial." He says he and his wife have chosen to focus their attention on medical care for orphans on the other side of the world.
"She'll continue to be the happy, outgoing little girl — only it will be in the faces of some other children," he says.
The family is also thinking about the children in their small town on Nova Scotia's southwestern tip. They include MaCali's pre-primary classmates who were at the parade — and are now students at Yarmouth Elementary, the school where Hannem works as the guidance counsellor.
A connection with students
"We connect because I can tell them how I feel, and that you know, I'm sad," he says. He tells the children that drawing, writing, or showing kindness are ways to honour MaCali.
"We all have to work through it."
When he was starting out as a young teacher more than 30 years ago, Hannem was only a few years older than his students, and he says that created a unique bond.
Three decades later, his teaching has inspired an act of charity. It is a lasting legacy in memory of his own granddaughter on the other side of the world.
"Who knows, we may have a teacher who ends up in Canada that grew up in the orphanage because we have no idea where this leads."