While many residents in Fort Frances spent their long weekend relaxing, a small group of dedicated volunteers pulled on their high visibility vests, and got to work, patrolling the streets for hazards.
Bear Clan Patrol Fort Frances is a volunteer-driven patrol group, which responds to calls from the public about used needles, drug paraphernalia and other hazards. They provide a community-centred approach, based on the Bear Clan Patrol program, started in Winnipeg in the early 1990's.
The Fort Frances patrol was established about six years ago when members of the community started to notice needles being disposed, said James Eastman, project coordinator at Bear Clan Patrol Fort Frances. He was a volunteer for the Winnipeg group in the 1990s, and has seen the program grow locally. Since it was founded, it has grown to roughly 25 registered volunteers who are on call for community service patrols. The group provides a wide range of security services to those in need, including safe rides and safe walks. When funds allow, they even help people in distress to find safe shelter in a hotel room, said Eastman.
Brent Helgeson, 63, has been volunteering with the Bear Clan for three years. He said it is a worthy organization to support because although needle picking is part of what they do, it goes well beyond that.
"It is community service,” Helgeson said. “We bought clothes for homeless people. We give donations of food. When we are out and patrolling, we always have juice boxes and snacks so if somebody is hungry we can give them something - a bottle of water or a juice box or granola bars."
When it's time for patrols, volunteers gear up. They wear name badges, high visibility vests, and personal protective equipment. The patrols usually start at 5:00 p.m. and last well into the night. Volunteers collect trash as they walk, check on residents and hand out snacks to those in need. Helgeson said all of the volunteers receive training on how to handle and dispose of sharps.
"We pick them up and put them in a sharps container that the NWHU provides,” Helgeson said. “We're trained on rules and regulations. We're told not to pick them up with our hands. We wear rubber and leather gloves. It depends on what we are picking up. We also pick up garbage too, when we are patrolling. If we are doing a patrol, we are taking a garbage bag with us and cleaning the community at the same time. It's one big package."
Everyone in the Bear Clan Patrol Fort Frances is a volunteer. Although some chapters have paid employees or outside funding, the local Patrol stays true to its community roots. All of their donations come from community members, fundraisers and out of the volunteers' own pockets, said Eastman.
“We don't want to be government-funded because then we get told what to do and when to do it,” Eastman said. “That is not why Bear Clan was designed. We don't believe in having to be paid to do it. Most of the time when you get a government grant or government funding, then you have to follow stipulations and legalities.”
The financial needs of the group are ongoing, and every bit helps. Funds are used to buy patrol equipment, such as flashlights and batteries, and provide first aid training for volunteers.
Anyone who's interested in donating can go through the group's Go fund Me page, linked to their Facebook page under the name Bear Clan Patrol Fort Frances. Donations can also be either sent to email@example.com or by calling 807-276-2332 and arranging for in-person pickup. Eastman said because of COVID, they can do contact-free pickup. Anyone who comes across a needle or other hazard or needs the group's assistance can call the same number for help.
Equipment donations are also welcome. Eastman said community members can donate high visibility vests, flashlights, batteries, water and snacks.
Helgeson said he is volunteering because people need to know there is somebody out there that cares. “There is a need for it in the community and we want to make sure that the need is met.”