One of Fort McMurray’s unsung heroes battles cancer

by Rebekah Benoit

For 34 years, Sheryl Emerson has been a familiar face on the streets of Fort McMurray, offering food, shelter and kind words to the city’s homeless.

For 34 years, Sheryl Emerson has been a familiar face on the streets of Fort McMurray, offering food, shelter and kind words to the city’s homeless.

For 34 years, Sheryl Emerson has been a familiar face on the streets of Fort McMurray, offering food, shelter and kind words to the city’s homeless. The hardworking single mom raised two daughters and worked tirelessly as a cleaner, but still found time to pursue her passion for helping those in need.
“She was always there for the people on the street,” says Emerson’s close friend Elizabeth Lee.
Every Saturday, bright and early, Emerson appeared at the Centre of Hope to volunteer for the outreach program. “She’d go out on the weekends, bring a cup of coffee, get them to come into the church. All the street people knew who Sheryl was,” Lee says. “She wasn’t afraid to speak to them and to care for them.”
The list of organizations in Fort McMurray which have benefitted from Emerson’s helping hands is lengthy, including the Detox Centre, the McMurray Gospel Assembly, the Centre of Hope, the Youth Assessment Centre, St. Aiden group home and many others.
Lee, a single mother herself, met Emerson shortly after she arrived in Fort McMurray, alone and in need of a friend. “All of us single moms gravitated towards each other. We had meals together, we’d do things in church together, and we all had a similar interest in caring for people,” Lee recalls.
Emerson suffered through some difficult years in Fort McMurray, struggling to make ends meet while raising her two daughters, but Lee says that no matter how difficult things were for Emerson, she always managed to find a way to help others, even offering her couch to people in need of a place to stay. “None of her jobs paid very well, but there was always somebody staying at her house that needed a place,” Lee remembers. “If you needed a place, it didn’t matter. She’s done that all the way along, even when she lived in a basement. She’s one of those people you might not notice, because she’s not up there making speeches, but she’s got a gift. Wherever she goes, she’s very well respected.”
In 2013, Emerson decided to make the move to Mulhurst Bay in southern Alberta to be closer to her daughter and three grandchildren. A consummate hard worker, Emerson continued to work full-time, even as she moved into her 60s. Early in 2015, when she was working as a flagperson in Fort St. John, she began feeling unwell. “She was working so many hours and she just didn’t feel good, so she left her job,” explains Lee. When Emerson returned to Mulhurst Bay, she made a terrible discovery. A lump in her breast turned out to be stage 2 breast cancer.
Since the discovery, Emerson has undergone a mastectomy and may need chemotherapy. Employment insurance only covers her medical benefits, and have proven inadequate to her needs. Emerson’s wide network of friends in Fort McMurray have decided to come together and appeal to the community whom Emerson has spent so many hours helping.
“Sheryl really cares. She’s very passionate about trying to lead her life the right way. She’s that person that’s in your face and right there, very straightforward but also very caring and loving,” Lee says.
On Saturday, June 6 from 5:30 pm to midnight, the Friendship Centre will host the Sheryl Emerson Fundraising Jambouree, a family-friendly event to raise money for Emerson’s care. Donations of food and items for the silent auction are being accepted, and Lee says that anyone with a musical talent is encouraged to bring an instrument and add their voice to the festivities. The cost is $10 at the door for adults – children are free – and stew and bannock will be served.
Those who wish to help financially can donate through the Gofundme page “Chasing Life – Sheryl Emerson.”