05/13/2012 08:15 EDT | Updated 07/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Slave Lake Fire Anniversary: Red Cross Spends More Money Operating In Community Than In Direct Aid


People across the country and around the world donated $5.5 million to the Canadian Red Cross to help the people of Slave Lake after a wildfire devastated the Alberta town one year ago.

But so far, more money has been spent on operating the charity in the community than in direct aid to its people.

And half of the donations are still sitting in the bank.

Steve Armstrong, the Alberta director of the Red Cross, says the money is being well spent.

"Every penny of it is being spent on people affected by that fire."

Armstrong says some residents have voiced concern about where the money has gone and he admits the agency initially did a poor job of talking about its work in the town. It's now trying to change that.

It recently posted a report detailing the donations.

Roughly $770,000 first went to helping people with emergency rent, food and clothing. It also funded various programs, including an anti-bullying project and hot lunches in schools and daycares when evacuees returned. In all, the Red Cross says it aided 4,500 people and is still working with about 400 families.

The library burned in the fire, so the Red Cross spent another $400,000 to rent a temporary location for two years. Armstrong says it was important to give the community a meeting place.

The Red Cross says it has spent just over $1.5 million on its own operations — the costs of running a charity, Armstrong says. About $815,000 went to transporting and housing aid workers, $229,000 to renting an office in the town and $529,000 to pay staff and help volunteers with incidentals.

There were initially 350 volunteers on site. The local Red Cross office now has five paid staff and another five volunteers. The agency plans to keep the office open in Slave Lake indefinitely, but that cost won't come out of the Slave Lake pool of money.

That leaves $2.8 million.

About $800,000 will be set aside for ongoing recovery work in the town and $2 million is going to a new community projects fund. A committee is accepting ideas from residents and organizations —anything from a Boy Scout trip to a sports tournament.

Armstrong doesn't want to call it extra money. He notes that without "unprecedented" financial help from the provincial government, the donations would have been long gone. The province gave the region $289 million last year for recovery and rebuilding costs, which included housing evacuees and giving them cash allowances.

"We're actually able to do work we wouldn't normally be able to do," Armstrong says.

That includes mental health programs, counselling and just being there for people who want to talk, says Armstrong. He's certain the emotional help the Red Cross has provided has saved lives in Slave Lake.

"Our biggest job in life is to stop people from going over that edge, catching them and setting them back up on their feet, and walking behind them or beside them as we go forward."

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