A community rallies together at an Ontario Walmart store

Topics: Ontario, Emergencies and Disasters in Canada
July 11, 2019

Sunday, April 14th, was no average Sunday. In the small town of Kapuskasing in Northern Ontario something out of the ordinary took place at the local Walmart store.

Around this time of year, unfortunately it’s common for some flood-prone Northern Ontario First Nations communities around James Bay needing to be evacuated for the safety and wellbeing of residents. On Monday, April 15th, 2,500 people were evacuated, and approximately 550 of those evacuees were flown to Kapuskasing.

Bill Behse, a long-standing Emergency Management logistics volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross, had just arrived in Kapuskasing. He was on his way to the local Walmart to collect materials urgently needed to support the incoming evacuees who had been impacted by the flooding.  Tammy Gagnon, Assistant Manager at the local Kapuskasing Walmart, was having a particularly busy morning. It was about to get busier.

Not your typical Walmart experience

Bill at WalmartBill has been a volunteer with the Canadian Red Cross for over 10 years. He spearheaded the logistics team in Ontario and has been the boots on the ground problem solver for several disasters. In this case, Bill was sent to collect supplies to create a ‘store’ for the evacuees. This way people impacted by flooding have a place to get all their essentials like shampoo and diapers. This was not Bill’s first time collecting supplies from Walmart - Walmart Canada has partnered with the Canadian Red Cross since 2003 and is our largest corporate partner. Beyond Walmart’s financial contributions, they are among the first companies to offer in-kind donations of clothes and food among other items when a disaster strikes a community.

Typically, Bill and fellow volunteers will get their carts, load them up, and check out like a regular customer would do. It can be a long process that usually takes a full day, requiring a lot of organization and planning. However, this was not a typical Walmart experience, Bill explains, “Kapuskasing Walmart caught me off guard. When I told the manager what we were doing, she basically dropped everything she was doing and grabbed the only free associate on the floor. They grabbed my list and started loading up my cart.”

“They devoted themselves to our task and it only took them a couple hours. I was just sitting there in awe because I didn’t have to do anything really, other than stand back, and watch the magic happen.” – Bill

Tammy has been with Walmart for over 17 years, she started as a temporary greeter and made her way up through the ranks to Assistant Manager. Since these floods typically occur annually in the James Bay area, Tammy already had her store ready, anticipating the needs of those impacted. She put in an order ahead of time to ensure they had enough inventory for those evacuated. When Bill came to her with a list of the materials and told her that he could do it himself, she thought, ‘that list is too long to do by yourself’. She felt like she could help. Soon enough, several associates from other departments came up and asked if they could help as well. Tammy explains this teamwork mindset at her store, “we have teams who do certain things, but often a team will see another team struggling and they will get together and accomplish whatever it is they need to do.”

“My store is really different from other stores I think. This is a store where people have been working here for a long time. I think throughout the years we’ve built not only a friendship but family type of relationship.”- Tammy

Bill was in awe. Tammy and her team were so diligent, after about half an hour, Bill ended up giving them the list to take over. Bill’s role was to make decisions like, if they needed diapers, he would tell them what size to get. Bill explained he relied on Tammy’s judgement to find acceptable substitutes, if they didn’t have enough stock of a certain item. Since this is Tammy’s job, she knew how to do it quickly. Bill recalls, the Walmart staff was very keen about helping. “It ended up turning the store into a little party, they were all excited, and virtually everybody got involved some way or another. But they were still looking after their customers.”

Community coming together at check-out kiosk

Red Cross truck loaded at WalmartAfter they had gathered the supplies, they headed to the customer service check-out, where one staff member dedicated herself to checking out the supplies for the Red Cross while another served the other customers. They also had a couple cart associates helping load the Red Cross truck with supplies, where they would leave to serve customers but always come right back to help load the truck.

During check-out something magical happened, and the true spirit of community came to life. A line started to form behind them at customer service, “low and behold, it started off with one and then a couple. Customers started to help us load our stuff up after it was checked out. They helped us put things in Walmart bags, all the loose items, like deodorants and shampoos.”

“The customers as they were waiting, they started helping and loading up our bags, and putting them in our carts. Everyone was laughing and having a great old time.”- Bill

This act was heartwarming and magical to see but Tammy wasn’t surprised. She explained that, “in small towns, we know everyone, and that’s what was happening. They saw that we were trying to rush for Bill and people just wanted to help. That’s what a small community does.”

“I feel the Red Cross helps a lot of people. It’s not only evacuees, it could be someone who had a fire, it could be anyone, and it could touch my family. I feel that one day it might be me that needs help, so why not give a little bit extra to help out today.” – Tammy

Walmart Canada has partnered with the Canadian Red Cross since 2003 to provide disaster relief to communities in need and to promote disaster preparedness across the country. As our largest corporate partner, over $49 million has been donated by Walmart and its customers since the partnership began.

Beyond Walmart’s financial contributions, they also provide Canadian Red Cross blankets for families in need, and are always among the first companies to offer in-kind donations of clothes and food among other items when a disaster strikes a community.