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Fort McMurray wildfire: Supports for child evacuees and families

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WATCH ABOVE: Some Alberta child care agencies are making sure there's big support for the Fort McMurray wildfire's youngest evacuees. Family matters reporter Laurel Gregory explains. – May 18, 2016

It’s been two weeks since Lisa Penton fled Fort McMurray with her three daughters and settled with a friend in Edmonton, but the trauma is still fresh.

They hurriedly packed up and navigated the smoke-filled roads. Penton says she was terrified but tried to stay strong for her daughters as they panicked: “Mommy, we’re going to die.”

“They don’t forget,” the young mother said. “They’ll bring it up.”

READ MORE: Phased re-entry into Fort McMurray after wildfire to begin June 1

Penton says seven-year-old Brooke, six-year-old Paige and four-year-old Quinn ask if their house is gone and tend to get sad if they have idle time.

That’s why the mother of three has prioritized keeping the girls busy. She’s enrolled her two eldest daughters at Gold Bar Elementary School, while her youngest attends preschool in the same building.

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“They go through spurts. If they’re out with their friends or playing, they don’t think about it.”

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: how to talk to your kids about evacuations, uncertainty 

As an early childhood educator, Meg Fortier knows the importance of continuity for young children suffering from a traumatic experience. That’s why she’s opened up free daycare Tuesday and Thursday mornings at Gold Bar Preschool for up to 12 evacuees.

Penton’s daughter Quinn was the first to enrol. Since she went to preschool four days a week in Fort McMurray, Fortier says it’s valuable for the four-year-old to continue to have a place to “just be a child.”

“We’re trying to put a little more of a coping curriculum into it so we’ll do some deep breathing, a little bit of yoga poses and things like that. Just talking about our feelings,” Fortier said.

“A lot of times the kids are coming from a chaotic environment obviously. It was probably a little traumatic getting here, so we want to talk about what they’re feeling and separate them…so they can piece out what exactly they are going through and deal with it more appropriately.”

READ MORE: Where Fort McMurray fire evacuees can get help and information

Other child care agencies are stepping up to support evacuees.

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The Children’s Cottage Society in Calgary has a crisis nursery where children can stay for up to three days.

“Parents just have to call us and tell us what their issue is, that they’ve been evacuated from Fort Mac. We will help children newborn to age eight who can have a sleepover at our crisis nursery while their parents go and take a break or just resolve some issues they need to do in the absence of kids,” CEO Patty Kilgallon explained.

“As people are having some struggles, even emotionally, a little bit of a time out can make a world of difference.”

The Children’s Cottage Society is also offering free daycare using one of 35 local, licensed child care options. Kilgallon asks evacuees with children aged three months to 12 years to contact their daycare program respite coordinator at 1-403-619-3153.

READ MORE: Photos of the Fort McMurray wildfire through the eyes of evacuees 

Evacuees with children under 12 years old can also access an Emergency Child Care Subsidy. Two benefits, which are not tied to household income, are available until Aug. 31, 2016. Similar subsidies were offered in the aftermath of the Slave Lake wildfire and the southern Alberta floods.

“Parents may be seeking child care for employment or to access benefits or to just manage those day-to-day things such as insurance or financial banking that they need to re-establish themselves and plan for upcoming months,” said Tania Brudler, acting senior manager for Human Services’ early childhood development branch. She anticipates between 700 and 1,000 families will use the program.

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To apply, evacuees can call 1-877-644-9992 or email hs.childcaresubsidy@gov.ab.ca.

Penton says her family wants to return home, but she’s grateful that – in the meantime – her daughters have a safe, supportive place to wait it out.

“It’s amazing the support we have. Not just us, but everybody.”

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