This weekend will be bittersweet for me, and for many in High River.
Tomorrow we begin the celebration of Graduation for many students here. I am very proud of our students who have braved this past 12 months to get this far. However, to see our youth go away reminds me how lovely it would be to see them come back, and even more, to stay.
Notre Dame Collegiate Grads in particular have my respect. They put up with far more than most other graduating classes in Alberta. They started their year late. When they did finally start, there were only two classrooms available to them in a borrowed building. Unfortunately for them, they were not joined by their friends in the younger grades for another week, and in some cases, more. Students didn't have lockers, and so for Grads they would carry their 35 pounds of textbooks throughout the day on their backs. No cafeteria. No gathering space to hang out with friends. After school programs like sports and music were either cancelled or put on hold in hopes of a quick return to the original Notre Dame Collegiate. Some programs didn't come back. Yet the students still hit the books and made the best of it, because after all, they were alive. A Me To We celebration at the end of September reminded the students of just how strong we are together.
When the rest of the grades finally joined them, classroom space was at a premium for both our host school and our own, so Notre Dame Collegiate had to run eight classes at a time in the gymnasium, while other classes crowded into every nook and cranny possible in that structure. The band program hoofed it two blocks away to the nearby Masonic Lodge, which was also experiencing a space crunch accommodating as many as 12 groups at one time with only three useable spaces. With the only gymnasium taken up, a school bus sat on standby at all times to take kids to the community RecPlex, but then again every other community group was fighting for space, and having three schools vying along with those community groups for time, that made things all the more challenging. So when the RecPlex wasn't available, students would be bussed to Blackie, 25 minutes away.
All the while, each and every High River family was having their own battles at home, if they had a home. Some were trying to finish the cleanup. Some were trying to start the cleanup. Some were trying to get insurance, Disaster Recovery Program, or anybody they could to help them recover. Some were just happy to have a roof over their heads, even if it was an ATCO trailer in Saddlebrook. Some were losing their jobs or clients because they were flooded away. Some were fighting to keep their businesses open. Some were simply battling on their neighbours behalf, hoping to keep the community together.
Glimmers of light shone on the students from time to time. If families couldn't afford school materials, they could get a backpack from the Parent Link Centre in town. Various donations trickled in from various locations. Opportunities like bringing a huge group of kids to the set of Heartland were welcomed. The most brilliant light in the fog was the host we had, for Ecole Senator Riley School very quickly became not only a neighbour and host, but friends who were there when they were needed. Friends we will never forget.
After a few weeks, camera crews, people in suits and ties, and photo opportunities started to grate on students' nerves. Politicians, many of whom had never set foot in the original Notre Dame Collegiate, came out in droves. Occasionally a student got their 15 minutes of fame, but even then some students would turn down the opportunity because they were just tired of it all, and wanted to get back to normal. Normal would never come.
All the while, Grads counted down to the projected arrival of the portable classrooms, only to have their hopes and deadlines dashed not once, not twice, but thrice. It's hard to concentrate on your classwork when you're not even certain of what your classroom space is going to look like from one day to the next. In October some of the portables finally opened up. Some classes moved in. Some stayed in the gymnasium and Masonic Lodge. The shuttles to the RecPlex and Blackie continued. In late October, the gymnasium and the Masonic Lodge were no longer used, and the shuttles to the RecPlex or Blackie became less constant.
Our community seemed to suffer blow after blow. In November our Filipino community was struck by another disaster, a typhoon that hit their families back in their home country. With a huge cohort of Filipinos in the school, for many it brought back the tragedy we recently experienced, and our community gathered around our Tagalog- and Visayan-speaking friends, including many of our Grads. Our elementary school remained in an untenable position running an over-capacity school in an even smaller Memorial Centre, where classrooms had to be torn down nightly for other community events. All we wanted to do was help, but when we are in need of help ourselves, feelings of helplessness can set in. For some, they had to leave, and in a community such as ours, any loss gets mourned.
Christmas was a much needed break. When we returned, our elementary friends all were in their portable school, and the end was in sight. Preparations for Grad celebrations were well underway, and the first sighs of relief came as the Grads completed their first sets of diploma exams. They had made it through the toughest part of the year. The school bid adieu to our hosts at Senator Riley, who said goodbye to us in a grand procession out our temporary front doors, and although they were likely happy to have the full capacity of their building back, hugs, tears and cheers for each other were still exchanged.
After the teacher professional development break, students came back to another press field day, but it would also be the last. However, the school they came back to was still far from finished. Grads found themselves in borrowed class spaces again, as small gathering areas became classrooms for displaced teachers. Busses continued to travel, but mostly only to the RecPlex. The Public Address system in the school didn't work, phones weren't connected, there was no place to eat lunch, and many classrooms didn't even have whiteboards yet. Nonetheless, they were in a building, it smelled new, it had a few upgrades already completed and a few more on the way, and most importantly, it was home.
In the back field of our refurbished home sat our elementary school in 26 portable classrooms. Very quickly our two schools got a chance to work together, which was a novelty as the original location (which sat underwater for 2 months after the flood) was too far away to really develop any sort of connection with. Grads were often found working with elementary students, and the two schools became closer than they have ever been since the elementary school was built. While challenges still continue, which should be expected when 750 students have to share a single gymnasium, the comraderie in the Catholic community coagulated, and new opportunities were born.
Though the Grads have moved through trial into opportunity within the school context, some still continue to battle issues at home. Many are still rebuilding homes. Some have just moved back home from the temporary housing, and thankfully only a few remain in Saddlebrook. Some businesses have recovered, some remain in temporary structures, some are going further and further into debt hoping that critical point where they have to close their doors forever never comes. For some, it has already come and gone.
This is why I believe there are few graduating classes that deserve a celebration as much as Notre Dame Collegiate's Grads this year. They fought through it all. They faced challenge at home, at school, in their minds, their bodies and in their souls. And they stood tall and strong. They are some of the best examples of what it means to be a High Riverite.
This is also what makes me somewhat sad. It is likely that many of them are leaving, be it for post-secondary or simply to find work where it's available and stable. High River's loss will be the rest of the world's gain. But I hope that High River recovers in such a way that these beacon's of our future choose to return home, live, grow families here, build a community here, and remain.
To these amazing human beings who, as the youngest of adults, have faced some of the most incredible challenges imaginable, I hope these remain the most incredible challenges you will ever face for the rest of your life. I hope that you are aware just how powerful you are, and that you never falter in the steps you take forward. You have no need for a lack of confidence; if you could manage this year, you've got an amazing potential ahead of you. I pray that as you move forward, wherever you go, you take the lessons you have learned here and share your power, strength, resolve and potential to make everything you touch better. But most importantly, I pray you come back to High River, because you indeed are our future, and you are needed.
And even if you don't come back to High River to stay, you had better visit!