Photo of the Fort McMurray fire taken by Erica and Ronald Vanden Pol as they evacuated the city
Photo of the Fort McMurray fire taken by Erica and Ronald Vanden Pol as they evacuated the city
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Alumni couple’s trial by fire a ‘life-changing’ experience

When graduates pack up and leave The King’s University campus, they go with the prayers of family and supporters in their hearts to meet the challenges of the future.

Those prayers for strength, wisdom and protection were answered on May 3, 2016, for Erica (B.Ed. 2011) and Ronald (B.Ed. 2010) Vanden Pol. The young couple, teachers at Fort McMurray Christian School, were part of a mass evacuation of the 80,000 residents of this northern Alberta city. They arrived safely in Edmonton after an exhausting eight-hour drive to escape a rapidly advancing forest fire.

They were among the last to leave the school in the late afternoon, volunteering to stay until the last students had been safely restored to their parents. Unlike most of the teachers at the 200-student school, the Vanden Pols didn’t have to leave early to connect with other family. With Erica eight months pregnant, their baby was safely tucked away, allowing the couple to join the exodus from school in their Ford Fusion, which fortuitously had a full tank of gas. They were confident their house would be OK, since the fire by all accounts didn’t appear to be threatening the Stone Creek neighbourhood.

The experiences of that day and the days and weeks following were “life-changing,” says Erica. “It was fairly surreal; we just took it one day at a time,” she recalls.

Ronald looks back and sees so many positives, how well-organized the emergency response was, at the school and in Fort McMurray; how the evacuees were quickly met with help from the city, province and insurance companies; how family and friends surrounded them with support.

On May 5, an all-day free event at West Edmonton Mall’s Water Park for Fort McMurray evacuees enabled the couple to meet with others from their home church of Evergreen CRC. It was good to be with their church family on that day, Erica recalls, because she and Ronald learned their house had been totally destroyed in the fire,

On the following Sunday, Trinity CRC in Edmonton hosted a service and potluck lunch for Fort McMurray evacuees. Erica estimates about 80 per cent of their Evergreen congregation was there.

“With both of us coming from faith backgrounds, it just meant so much to know the amount of prayer we received from people we’ve never even met,” she says.

The life-changing events of those first few weeks didn’t stop with the fire and the temporary resettlement at Ronald’s mom’s home in Edmonton. On June 1, Erica gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Reuben, at the Lois Hole Hospital for Women, part of the Royal Alexandra Hospital where Erica’s aunt is a nurse.

The cloud of losing their home definitely came with a silver lining for the couple, Ronald points out. Instead of being in Fort McMurray with a new baby, they were in Edmonton, near their hometowns of Lacombe and Red Deer. “The opportunity to be with family this summer was just excellent. They got to hang out with us and with Reuben and really get to know him.”

In August, Ronald and Erica and little Reuben moved back to Fort McMurray, into an apartment in the same building the young couple lived in before buying their first house in 2012. Noting the struggles of others who have lost their homes, trying to make do in temporary housing with four or five kids, Ronald calls the destruction of their house “very inconvenient, but something we can live with.”

Erica is on maternity leave from her Grade 3 teaching job, while Ronald is back teaching Grade 6. They have a builder lined up to rebuild their home but backlogs with insurance may mean construction delays into 2017 or even 2018.

“There are things in the house that can’t be replaced, things that meant a lot to me are gone, but we are all fine,” says Erica.

“We’ve made it through this and we now know we can make it through anything,” says Ronald, laughing.

Aug. 28 was a very special day in the life of this young family, as Reuben was baptized in Evergreen CRC by Rev. George Holthof, the congregation’s retired pastor. Reuben was one of three evacuee babies baptized that Sunday.

Ronald and Erica praise the readiness of the King’s community to help them in any way.

“We were contacted right away by the alumni co-ordinator,” says Erica, noting several couples in their home church are King’s alumni. “We definitely felt the support from the King’s community.”  

The Christian school and its families are welcoming a return to routine as the first months of school unfold. And that’s a good thing, says Ronald, who says staff remains alert to signs of adjustment issues among students.

“Our faith, our family support, all made such a difference to us,” says Erica in reflecting on the upheaval of recent months, “And Reuben was a wonderful distraction, of course.”


This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Connection Magazine. Read the entire issue, here.


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