SACO, Maine — A little girl approached Denis Lauzon and asked if he was indeed the fire chief of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. When he responded that he was, the follow-up question hit hard: “Have you found my parents yet?”
A deadly July train wreck in Lac-Megantic flooded the streets with flaming oil and killed 47 people in the town of about 5,900.
Lauzon relayed the story about the little girl to Paul Deschambeault of the Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club during a visit to the region in October. The chief gave the little girl his badge. It was the last thing he had to give away.
“There wasn’t a dry eye around that table,” Deschambeault said of the meeting with Lauzon. “He just had nothing to offer her. Not even hope.”
The runaway train stole at least one parent from 21 children, and completely orphaned four.
“We felt that there wouldn’t be anything we could do environmentally,” Deschambeault said. “But we could do something to maybe lift their spirits. The first thing that most of these people are giving up is Christmas.”
Now, through the effort of 39 Rotary clubs from Damariscotta to Hampton, N.H., at least some part of that holiday is being restored. Starting with an initial goal of raising $5,000 to help families affected by the inferno, the Rotarians have now collected more than $25,000 in donations, 700 teddy bears and another 2,500 toys to be distributed in the Quebec town.
Each of 600 children in two elementary schools there will receive a teddy bear — with firefighters and police officers keeping the other 100 to hand out as they encounter children in their cleanup work. Families of the 500 children who live in what local officials are calling the “red zone,” the area most affected by the wreck, will be invited to a Christmas fair on Saturday at St. Agnes Church.
Family members will be allowed to “shop for free” for five Christmas gifts for each child, Deschambeault said.
“We have fleece scarves, hats, beanie caps, gloves, blankets, boxes and boxes of toys and trucks, My Little Pony toys, Barbie dolls,” said Deschambeault, pawing through stacks of bags and boxes ready to be packed into a waiting SUV Wednesday afternoon. “We have things that would suit newborns all the way up through 12-year-olds.”
Deschambeault, a past president of the Biddeford-Saco Rotary and current chairman of the larger organization’s World Community Service Committee, said the destruction of much of Lac-Megantic’s downtown left many residents without jobs, and the resultant hardship quickly sapped the local food pantry.
About $6,000 of the monetary donations the Rotarians received will be given to the food pantry, where it will be leveraged to acquire more than $70,000 worth of food, he said.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Rotarians and their supporters are gathering at McAllister Machine in Saco to load up a caravan of between nine and 12 vehicles to make the trip to Armstrong, where they will cross the border into Canada.
That’s where the charitable mission would have been stopped had the Salvation Army and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, not intervened, Deschambeault said.
“You can’t have more than 100 gift items in a vehicle crossing the international border,” he said. “We have 2,500 items to bring — we’d have needed 25 cars to make the trip, and we don’t have that.
“We needed a little help,” Deschambeault continued, joking, “Without that, we probably would’ve needed bail money. Or we would’ve had to bribe our way out with teddy bears.”
The Salvation Army, which already has representatives in Lac-Megantic helping in the recovery effort, sent Canadian border patrol officials a letter vouching for the Rotarians, and Bonita Pothier from King’s office followed up to ensure the caravan would be allowed smooth passage.
So Deschambeault and his fellow travelers will be able to save the teddy bears for the children they meet in Lac-Megantic.
“Many of us here in Maine are Franco-Americans, French descendants,” he said. “We still have very, very strong connections to our Canadian neighbors. If this had happened in one of our own communities, we know they would have done the same thing for us.”