The parents of a 15-year-old girl killed in a fiery car crash while evacuating the Fort McMurray wildfire last spring are planning to build a park in her memory.
Emily Ryan and her cousin Aaron Hodgson, 19, were killed in a highway collision one day after the entire Fort McMurray area was evacuated in May.
They had made their way to Anzac on the evening of May 3, but the evacuation centre was full. They camped out overnight and then started driving down Highway 881 toward Lac La Biche the next day.
Emily, a triplet, was riding with her cousin when their vehicle collided head-on with a logging truck and burst into flames.
“Life has changed, dynamics have changed but we don’t want to stay stuck in grief,” Melonie Matthews-Ryan, Emily’s stepmom, said Monday.
“We want to have something to focus on to give other people a way to remember the kids and not just remember their death.”
Melonie and her husband, Cranley Ryan, the deputy fire chief in Saprae Creek, initially thought they would build a bench in an existing park to honour their daughter but offers to help do more from the community and complete strangers quickly began to pour in.
“Initially there were a few people asking what we needed or if they could do something,” Cranley said. “As more and more people were offering then we kind of said, ‘maybe we can do something good for the entire community.'”
The Ryan family has already collected about $16,000 through fundraising. Heinz Kraft Project Play, which is dedicated to building places for people to play across Canada, has committed $25,000 for the park.
“We feel like we’re well on our way to having a park that’s bigger than what we could have ever dreamed,” Melonie said.
The family has support from the municipality and hopes to build the park in the devastated Beacon Hill neighbourhood, where Emily went to elementary school.
“There was so much damage and destruction,” Cranley said. “I think it would mean a lot to the community of Beacon Hill, and the Beacon Hill school and Emily and ourselves if it was somewhere in the vicinity of the school.
“We’re hopeful to do something great for the community that’ll give us somewhere to go and a memory to hold onto and a place to build new memories for families for years to come. A legacy.”
The couple hopes the park can provide a peaceful place for families to come together. Because Emily and Aaron were both into reading, they envision benches where people can spend time with a good book or watch their kids play.
“Emily loved Harry Potter, Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz – some of these characters – she loved those types of things so I kind of envisioned trying to use that to represent who she was,” Melonie said.
“When people come to the park not only do they just see their names, but they leave there feeling like they kind of knew who the kids were.”
Watch below: She was a daughter, a sister and a friend to so many. Fifteen-year-old Emily Ryan and her cousin Aaron Hodgson were killed while fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfire in May. They are the only deaths connected to the massive blaze. Erin Chalmers sat down with the family in June as they returned home for the first time without Emily.
The Ryans’ family home in Saprae Creek was extensively damaged in the wildfire. While the structure of the home remained standing, the house suffered water and smoke damage. The Ryans lived in their RV for a while but have been living in a rental home in Fort McMurray for the past several months.
They look forward to moving back home, hopefully in the next couple of months.
“There’s been so many struggles along the way. In November we kind of took some time privately to kind of deal with what we were going to have to face when we eventually get home. Many families, when they lose a loved one – especially a child – you go home that night and grieve in your own bed and some of that has been held over because we haven’t been back,” Melonie said.
“We’re hoping for a fresh start. It’ll be good to get home and to finally be able to be our family unit as we were before the fire hopefully. As best we can, put things back together.”
The couple hopes to have the park up and running by the end of 2017 or early 2018. Anyone who wishes to contribute to the project can visit any Scotia Bank branch and donate to the ER Park Rebuild Trust Fund. E-transfers can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.