Ewa Olguin, the StrongStart coordinator at Diamond Vale Elementary School was one of many Merrittonians who ended up in Kamloops following a city-wide Evacuation Order on Nov. 15.
Olguin and her family were put up at the Thompson Hotel and Conference Centre, where she soon discovered several of her StrongStart students and families had also ended up.
“The first week when we arrived at the Thompson Hotel, I realized there were lots of parents from my Strong Start in Diamond Vale and also lots of parents from Diamond Vale area with students in older classes,” explained Olguin.
“They were really stressed, there was so much unknown, that week was one of the worst weeks for all of us. So, I saw them and I said, ‘oh I have some crayons, let’s do colouring, let’s read a book, let’s have some snacks.’ We sat in the lobby and all those kids came, I had seven or eight kids.”
The children asked if they could meet again in the lobby the next day, and Olguin agreed. It didn’t take long for the owner of the hotel to notice the joy that the impromptu set up brought to the evacuated children and offer Olguin the use of the conference centre.
Additionally, Olguin was able to connect with a member of the Kamloops Salvation Army, who offered to assist in her play time program.
“I normally always provide snacks, but at this point I didn’t have much,” Olguin explained, requesting that snacks be provided for her students, if possible.
“She said, I will get you everything that you need, just tell me what you need.”
The Salvation Army provided snacks and juice as well as craft supplies.
Heather Hatfield of Merritt’s White Bear Daycare also donated snacks and toys. In the meantime, the Salvation Army had reached out to United Way, who brought additional items to the hotel.
“It was like a web of kindness, going from Salvation Army to Heather to United Way,” said Olguin.
By this time, Olguin had sent messages to parents she knew telling them they were welcome to bring their children down to have fun, connect with other children and ease evacuation stresses, whether they were StrongStart students or not.
“Our big room became a safe room,” said Olguin.
StrongStart is for children aged 0-5, but Olguin now welcomes roughly 15 children who range from babies to grade 5 students.
“I started this because I wanted to help them to feel normal, to forget about the flood,” said Olguin.
“One of the girls is from Phase 4 and her whole house is gone, Central School is flooded. She told me, ‘Ewa, I don’t have a house, I don’t have a school, but I’m so glad I have you’, and I started crying.”
Following an interview with Olguin, Shelley Joyce of CBC Radio’s Daybreak Kamloops arranged a free trip to the BC Wildlife Park to view the Christmas light displays.
Olguin informed the mother of one of the children, who said that her daughter had been “emotional and depressed” since the evacuation. The seven year old is now brimming over with excitement, her worries temporarily forgotten.
Following the CBC interview, Olguin said that at least two to three people a day were coming by the hotel to drop off gifts and supplies. Jane Kempston, Student Support Services for SD58, arranged a meeting between Ewa and members of faculty for Kamloops SD73, where some of those gifts could be more widely distributed.
“The kids are happy. The hotel also is providing us with some cereal and milk every morning, and I am just thankful to them because they also did a meet and greet for all the people from Merritt.”
The Thompson Hotel also sponsored a bingo game for Merritt evacuees, and employees of the attached restaurant brought soup and scones over.
“Those people never get recognized, they work so hard behind the scenes,” said Olguin.
“But if it was not for them, this would not have happened.”
Kempston was also instrumental in ensuring Olguin had the support she needed, noting that she always goes “above and beyond”, no matter the situation.
Olguin’s husband, Manuel, has also played a key role in the ongoing acts of kindness.
“I could not do this without his support.”