For weeks now, a volcano on the island of St. Vincent has been erupting, and covering the surrounding area with ash and volcano boulders, forcing people from their homeland and their community.
Although there was some warning the eruption was coming, many of those who live in the area, called the red zone, had nowhere to go, says Virgil resident La Fleur Fletcher, who is collecting items to send home to the island where she was born and raised, and where her family still lives.
They have been moving around, living in various places, including sharing limited space with family, friends and at government shelters, waiting until they can go home — although they won’t have much to go home to, says Fletcher. The area is a farming community, and her family members are farmers, with their land and any crops they may have had now covered in the grey ash spewed from the volcano, along with pyroclastic flow, described as a deadly mixture of superheated gases, rock and mud.
“When they do go home, there won’t be anything there for them,” she says.
Eruptions are expected to continue for months, and the island government is overwhelmed, without the resources to get much-needed supplies to its people.
Fletcher has been sending containers of goods home to her mother for years, and knows how to get them there.
She explains she came to Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2009 with her husband Claude, who is from Jamaica. They had met when they were both working on a small cruise ship, she says. He was a cook, and her job entailed a little of everything, from looking after cabins to working in the gift shop and serving meals in the dining room.
When Claude decided he’d like to pursue a culinary career, they came to Niagara-on-the-Lake so he could attend a culinary school that operated out of a Nassau Street townhouse, using kitchens in various restaurants around town for students to get their hands-on training.
He was able to get a visa as an international student, and they rented a small basement apartment on Simcoe Street.
However, there were irregularities about the school that were reported to immigration officials, and the school was shut down in 2010, about two months before he would have finished his program, and before he was able to receive his certification.
They were told by immigration that they could stay in Canada if one of them was a student, so La Fleur began studying hospitality and restaurant management at Niagara College while Claude went to work driving a truck. Although some students did receive a refund, he did not, but was able to get a work permit.
“We loved it here, and I swore I wasn’t going to leave,” says La Fleur. “Everybody just accepted us. It’s been perfect for us.”
They both worked hard, saved money and were able to buy a home on Concession 4, “before the prices got crazy,” she says.
“I was willing to work 24/7 to stay here. It was very hard, but we made it work.”
For a time she had three jobs, at the Mary Street Tim Hortons, at the Best Western, and cleaning houses.
Claude went out west to Alberta for a while to work, and now drives a truck mostly on long day trips. La Fleur has her own cleaning business.
“We eventually got our permanent residency, and now we’re Canadian citizens. It has been quite a journey, but it was worth it,” she says.
As part of that journey, they have been raising their 10-year-old son Akeem, who goes to St. Michael Catholic Elementary School.
“I feel very blessed to be here. One of the reasons I wanted to stay was because of the way everybody comes together to help others when something happens,” says La Fleur.
Even though it’s a long way from St. Vincent, where her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins still live, she is witnessing the community coming together to help her family.
When the Fletchers were getting settled in NOTL they couldn’t afford to travel home, she says. The last time they were able to visit her family was 2014, although they had plans to return in December, 2020, which had to be cancelled.
“The last few weeks have been terrible for me,” she says, as she tried to get information about her family.
“Everybody had to leave. The volcano had been showing activity last November and December, but you can never be prepared for something like this. Mom and Dad and the rest of the family have been moving around, staying at shelters and with friends. They just moved to another house, and it’s crowded, there are a lot of them together, but at least they’re okay.”
They have been managing to get food, she says, but the water is not drinkable. She is trying to buy and ship water not just for her family, but for everybody who needs it. Last week she sent home a pallet of 100 cases of water, and received some donations of cash to help pay the $640 shipping charges.
She has a shipping agent in Mississauga who she has used in the past, and they ship straight to her mother, who will hand out whatever La Fleur is able to send.
“But it’s expensive. It goes by container size, not by weight. A four-foot by four-foot container costs $450 to ship.”
Locals have been helping out by purchasing goods to ship, as well as donating cash to help pay for shipping.
For those who want to help, La Fleur has a list of items she is shipping, including water, water filtration kits, parboiled long-grain rice, cooking oil, sardines, Vienna sausages, barbecue sauce, baked beans, ketchup, jam, Kraft dinner, oatmeal and cream of wheat, sweet corn, cream corn, black-eyed peas, lentil peas, peanut butter, pasta, ramen noodles, and juice boxes; plus toiletries such as toothpaste and tooth brushes, sanitary napkins, deodorant, and toilet paper.
Donations can be dropped off at 1612 Concession 4.
The Virgil Avondale is also accepting cash donations for St. Vincent.