New York native brightens up the city during his Foundation’s first-ever trip to Canada
By Dawn Booth, Connect Weekly
When the residents of the Wood Buffalo region fled from the wildfires two months ago, they saw an outpour of help provided from people around the world. The selfless acts and monstrosity of donations restored evacuees’ faith in humanity.
As more and more residents come back to the region each day, their faith still remains strong from the actions of visiting volunteers from a wide variety of world organizations – the representatives of Stars of HOPE (SoH) are one of the many.
SoH was present on the Canada Day long weekend to remind residents that they are not alone. The organization partnered with Paul Davis (a national restoration company helping Fort McMurray with relief efforts) to host a variety of positive impacts, which included: delivering stars from their program, participating in the city’s Canada Day parade, leading a community star painting workshop and hanging ‘stars’ throughout Fort McMurray.
SoH is a service project where volunteers decorate wooden stars with messages of peace and hope for people who have been exposed to tragedy. When the SoH team arrived, they brought painted stars with them from communities who went through disasters themselves; including New York City in New York, Groesbeck in Texas, Greensburg in Kansas and San Bernardino in California.
“This was one of the most beautiful, intimate, fun, and emotional Stars of HOPE trips that I was privileged to be part of. The reason for that was simple – the people,” Jeff Parness, founder and executive director of New York Says Thank You Foundation (NYSTYF), said on July 4.
SoH was initiated as an umbrella program to his Foundation in 2007, which was launched after Parness was victimized by 9/11 and lost his best friend and business partner Hagay Shefi in the event.
Parness was joined in Fort McMurray by four SoH representatives, including: Patrick Samuels from Groesbeck, Texas, who is the SoH program director and fire chief of the Groesbeck Fire Department, and also a survivor of a devastating tornado that hit his hometown in 2006.
Matt Deighton from Greensburg, Kansas, who is the author of children’s books Molly & the Tornado and Molly & The Stars of HOPE. He is also a survivor of a deadly tornado in 2007 that wiped out 95 per cent of his hometown. Jessica Ballesteros from San Bernardino, California, and an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, who is also a survivor of the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terror attack; and Suzanne Bernier from Toronto, Canada, who is the global ambassador of SoH, board member of the NYSTYF, and author of Disaster Heroes, as well as a global crisis management consultant.
Parness knows well how tragedy can affect a community, and understands how an unpredictable event can take a toll on mentalities. However, the New York native found Fort McMurray residents to be hopeful.
“Fort Mac is a really special place. They are diverse, inclusive, welcoming of people from all corners of the world and all faiths and cultures who have come to this remote, little piece of heaven to work, contribute, and raise their children,” Parness said.
“The trauma the entire community went through evacuating, and not knowing if their town would be there when they returned, is impossible to describe.”
“The trauma the entire community went through evacuating, and not knowing if their town would be there when they returned, is impossible to describe. The sadness of seeing thousands of homes reduced to ash amid the beautiful, wooded landscape leaves you with a sinking feeling. But there are people there still smiling, still hopeful, and who now have 500 Stars of HOPE throughout their community to remind them each and every day that they are not alone.”
Bernier flew to Fort McMurray from her home in Toronto to meet with the team, who had rented two RV campers from Edmonton to save hotel space for those who needed it.
“We didn’t want to take up valuable space and resources,” she said. “For the first time in SoH history, the team not only camped out, but in a Walmart parking lot no less. The entire experience really did bring us even closer together, and we really felt like a little ‘family’ by the end of it. We even made friends with some of our parking lot ‘neighbours’, including a volunteer who’d come all the way from Cornerbrook, Newfoundland to help during the fire. We also had a wonderful chat with Mayor Melissa Blake, who came by to visit us at our makeshift home.”
With 500 Stars of HOPE painted by residents at the Canada Day celebrations on MacDonald Island, the SoH Team hung them – along with others painted by communities across North America – in areas impacted by the wildfire, as well as throughout several city locations for the public to see.
Bernier said her and the SoH team all agreed Fort McMurray is one of the “most welcoming and friendly cities” they’ve ever seen. She was moved by the many messages of hope already present on the city streets upon her arrival.
“From my perspective as a disaster planner and having responded to disasters across the globe, I was particularly moved by all the signage and messages of support all over the city,” she explained.
She thanks the representatives at Paul Davis for helping them come to the city to spread hope.
“They really were our ‘feet on the ground’ throughout the planning process, and were with us every step of the way,” she said.
“It was the first time we were able to partner with a restoration company like this, and their insights, connections with the community, and help throughout were invaluable. I strongly believe that without Paul Davis, we would have never been able to pull everything together as quickly as we did, if at all.”
As for connecting with the community, Bernier shared how she spoke with many children and adults on Canada Day, who shared their stories with her and the SoH Team.
“Everyone we spoke to were surprised and touched to hear that people across North America had also painted and sent stars to Fort McMurray to show their love and support, and that the SoH volunteers and disaster survivors had come to give back to their community,” she said.
For more information on how to get involved with the Stars of HOPE program, visit www.starsofhopeusa.org.
“The great thing about Stars of Hope is that anyone can lead a paint workshop or paint stars on their own and ship them to anywhere they think hope is needed,” Bernier concluded. “Everyone is welcome to join our Stars of HOPE family.”