By Marty Helman, past governor of District 7780 (parts of Maine and New Hampshire, USA)
Lac Megantic in southern Quebec made headlines for all the wrong reasons last July when a train filled with crude oil derailed in the town’s central business district. The resulting fire destroyed the town’s economic base, killed 47, and 24 local children lost one or both parents. In the wake of the disaster, Rotarians in District 7780 across the border in southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire geared up to help.
Six Rotarians — including several with French Canadian roots and bilingual capabilities — drove to the stricken area in October for a needs assessment. Lac Megantic’s Rotary club was dissolved a decade ago, but the American Rotarians quickly explained their mission to the local fire chief and Salvation Army representative.
As a result of that fact-finding trip, Carolyn Johnson, governor of Rotary District 7780, asked clubs for donations, and clubs quickly raised $25,000. U.S. Senator Angus King and RI Director Bryn Styles were both quite helpful in dealing with the logistics of transporting merchandise across the border. As a result, on a chilly December weekend, with a nor’easter in the forecast, 17 Rotarians and family members — led by Carolyn and her husband Peter, a past district governor — made the five-hour trip to Lac Megantic to bring a brighter Christmas.
Rotarians distributed teddy bears to each of the 600 elementary school kids. We provided $6,000 to restock the local food pantry plus filled Christmas baskets for 13 families wiped out by the fire. And we purchased hundreds of gifts and toys and set up a “Christmas Bazaar” so that the parents of 400 children impacted by the fire could select five items per child to place under their family Christmas trees.
Many of the gifts were purchased in the U.S., where we used our connections to obtain deep discounts. Mattel, especially, was quite generous. But to give Lac Megantic’s economy a boost, $10,000 was set aside to purchase locally.
This act did not go unnoticed: In one store, the manager not only offered a 15 percent discount, he also got on the loudspeaker and told all the shoppers who the Americans were and why they were purchasing in bulk. The shoppers immediately broke into applause.
The Lac Megantic adventure garnered a record amount of publicity both in English and French, and was reported as far away as Montreal as well as in communities in northern New England.
Already, Carolyn is planning for the District to return to Lac Megantic next summer, perhaps to host a community picnic. Her dream is that a Lac Megantic Rotary Club can be resurrected as a result of this project. Meanwhile, Rotary District 7790, the home district of southern Quebec, is developing a Global Grant to help the stricken area rebuild.
And about that nor’easter: It complicated travel, but didn’t dampen Rotary spirits!