Students and staff at Fort McMurray’s Holy Trinity School have walked almost halfway around the world to help Development and Peace care for people whose lives have been uprooted.
It’s a situation many of them experienced firsthand after the devastating 2016 wildfire.
At the time of the wildfire, Grade 12 student Sarah Reid and her family left their home behind and travelled a smoke-shrouded highway to Edmonton. Displaced for over a month, they worried each day that their home may be razed by flames and reduced to ashes.
While their home was spared, Reid says the experience certainly made Development and Peace’s Share the Journey campaign that much more impactful.
“We had people at our school that did lose their homes and went through a lot more than I did,” said Reid. “For the whole school, it made us realize the impact of being displaced and what it’s like to lose everything.”
Over the five weeks of Lent, Holy Trinity students and staff set a goal of walking in solidarity — and raising money — for Development and Peace to help some of the estimated 68.5 million refugees, evacuees and other displaced people around the world.
D & P set a Lenten campaign goal of walking the circumference of the Earth, 40,075 kilometres. Holy Trinity students and staff alone ended up walking half that – 20,439 kilometres. The school’s initial goal was to walk 2,500 kilometres.
“When I was putting in those final numbers, my jaw was dropping,” said Chris Poulsen, the teaching chaplain at the Grade 7 to 12 school.
“We’re really want to do something that tangibly changes the hearts of the young people at our school, and the old people too, the teachers!”
Poulsen introduced the Share the Journey campaign during the Ash Wednesday assembly. Every classroom received a poster, a grid to show their daily step record, a copy of a prayer, lessons and activities, and a Development and Peace magazine as well as more than 80 step counters.
Poulsen said the 1,222 students and 109 staff at Holy Trinity embraced the program immediately, so much so that it has grown beyond a simple fundraising activity over Lent.
They would centre themselves in prayer and in solidarity with displaced persons, then record their steps for every activity — regardless of how mundane it may have seemed. Instead of faith being one part of daily life for staff and students, it was ingrained in every aspect, Poulsen said.
“It wasn’t just a walk. It was a cultural shift,” he explained. It was no longer ‘I’m just going to the bathroom.’ It was ‘I’m going to say this prayer, get in solidarity and then I’m going stick this step counter on.’ We’re going to actually think about what we’re doing all the time. We’re going to try to maintain a state of prayerful solidarity in our everyday life.
“We had (physical education) classes and dance classes that were saying the prayer before their warmups and dedicating their warmups to solidarity. So it was becoming so much bigger. It wasn’t just one kid walking. It was whole classes getting in solidarity, which I thought was just amazing.”
The theme of displaced persons seemed like a natural fit for Holy Trinity.
“In 2016, we became displaced people here in Fort McMurray,” Poulsen said. “It seemed like we could have a very personal connection to it. They got it. Some of them were living on a cot at Northlands (in Edmonton). These are kids and teachers who did this. They evacuated a wildfire. They know what it’s like.”
The wildfire forced the entire population of Fort McMurray, more than 83,000 people, to flee their homes. Many found temporary shelter in Edmonton. The wildfire burned more than 5,900 square kilometres and racked up nearly $10 billion in direct and indirect costs.
“When we had a lesson about ‘if you had one minute, what would you take from your house?’ that’s not a thought exercise for them,” Poulsen explained. “They were uniquely connected to being a displaced person. It wasn’t just lip service. It was something that was real. It was tangible.”
Holy Trinity’s Share the Journey campaign culminated on April 10, with an official all-school walk for three kilometres — in the rain. Students and staff also raised more than $1,500 for Development and Peace.
Poulsen said he’s convinced the school’s Lenten project will have lasting effects for years, but walking a record distance wasn’t the objective.
“The goal was to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. The goal was to do Christ’s work on Earth,” Poulsen said, adding the message to displaced people worldwide was: “We’re with you in the best way we can be. That was huge. It was a massive aspect of this. It wasn’t something that was just ‘Put your coin in a jar.’ We’re with you. You are our brothers and sisters.”
That goal of showing solidarity to refugees and those displaced around the world was a strong encourager for Reid.
“Our teachers told us about how important this was, that it wasn’t about the money. It was about helping people in other countries. And we just really drew on that,” she said.
Reid did her part for the campaign over a month-long period, walking around the school and counting her steps after her religion class each week. While she can’t recall the total number of kilometres she contributed, she says with a laugh that it was definitely a lot.
“It was a beautiful match. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’m thoroughly impressed at how they grabbed onto this,” said Kathleen Ladouceur, the Catholic schools program officer with Development and Peace. “They did this without competitions. There were no pizza parties. There were no prizes for people who walked those kilometres. This really was an engagement of prayer and solidarity for them.”
The Share the Journey campaign began two years ago, and will wrap up later this year. Next year’s campaign will focus on Care for Our Common Home, based on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.
“I think our students really want to find tangible things to make the world a better place,” Ladouceur said. “The message is: we care and we want to have a conversation about this issue.”