The weather outside was truly frightful. Just nine days before Christmas, heavy rains were washing over Maple Ridge on a stormy Saturday night. The cold, damp air made for the perfect excuse to stay home, wrapped in a blanket while watching a movie. If you didn’t have to go outside, Saturday night was tailor-made for you.
But it’s the season to celebrate, and all across Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, Christmas parties abound. Pubs were crawling with holiday cheer. Cars lined side streets in front of homes hosting parties. Heavy rains weren’t going to stop the flow of festive cheer.
Tucked near the end of McKay Avenue in the warehouse of Maple Ridge Towing, 40 volunteers gathered, slipped on their red vests and quickly went over any last paperwork that needed to be filled out. On this particular Saturday night, the comforts of home were being traded for those of goodwill.
For the past 10 years, Operation Red Nose has done its part to ensure Christmas revelers find their way home safe and sound. The premise is simple: Call ORN with your location, and they pick you up and drive your car home for you.
Donations are encouraged, but not mandatory.
The goal is to force party-goers to trade liquid courage for common sense. Every year an average of 66 people are killed in crashes involving impaired driving in British Columbia. Despite years messaging from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and local law enforcement, impaired driving is still in the top three for vehicle fatalities in B.C. Tonight, however, the ORN band of volunteers were doing their part to keep that number static.
Kate Doucette signed up for ORN four years ago. She said she had the intention of volunteering for a couple of nights, but was drawn in by the great sense of community. Now, this holiday season, she’s taking on the role of volunteer coordinator.
Doucette said each year has only made her dedication to the program stronger.
It’s almost like an addiction,” said Doucette. “The main thing, of course, is knowing that people aren’t drinking and driving. Knowing that every ride we give can save a life because they’re being responsible enough to get a safe ride home. But it’s also coming here and seeing all these people who volunteer. They’re wonderful people. They come together to form this team that’s helping contribute to make the community a safe place. If it saves one life, then of course it’s worth it.”
Doucette said while the time with Operation Red Nose may take time away she spends with her family, she feels the message it sends to her kids is just as important.
“They see me going out into the community and helping complete strangers, that I’m able to give back. That’s what I want them to do when they are older – give back to the community.”
She said one of the biggest draws is just being out on the road with those who are celebrating the season.
The people I’ve met are always so much fun,” said Doucette. “Every ride is different. There’s always an experience. There’s always some real interesting conversations and I’ve loved every minute of it, because they’re all so happy knowing they are getting home safe and their car will be there in the morning.”
While she said she’s never had a bad experience, she has had her fair share of actually finding people’s home.
“Sometimes they’ve had a little too much to drink and their sense of direction goes, but we eventually find our way,” she laughs.
Doucette said her Christmas season wouldn’t be the same without volunteering at ORN.
“When you walk in, there is such a strong sense of community with everyone. Some of us only see each other during the nights of service, but you recognize everyone, maybe not by name, but by face.”
She’s also dedicated to the cause.
Since its inception in 1996, more than 94,000 rides have been provided by all the volunteers across the country.
In Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, prior to the start of the 2017 campaign, ORN has offered 3,629 people the gift of a safe ride home.
And with New Year’s Eve being the last night for the program in 2017, all indications the program is set for another strong showing. Over the eight nights the program has run in 2017, they’ve provided 252 rides to 557 people.
Donations are at just more than $8,400 and well on their way to topping their goal of $10,000.
Money raised goes towards helping local youth or amateur sports organizations.
Locally, money will support Pacific Sport Fraser Valley, a not-for-profit regional sport hub that provides dedicated support to more than 200 registered athletes and coaches across the valley.
Fifty per cent of the donations will directly support the athletes through competition and travel grants and the rest of the funds will support athlete development programs. The centre is one of only five in the province.
Dena Sorley, manager of Maple Ridge Towing, has been part of ORN since its inception in Ridge Meadows. Every year she said she looks forward to meeting with the familiar faces and new volunteers. It’s become a staple in her Christmas traditions.
“I’ve built some incredible relationships over the past 10 years,” said Sorley. “But I also seeing new faces. It’s incredible how fast people bond after just one night together. There’s something about this program that brings them together.”
She said it probably based on what it is that ORN tackles. As someone in the towing industry, Sorley said it can be frustrating to see volunteers head out on to the road one moment, then the next second she’s having to open the gate for staff while they bring in a car that’s been involved in other an accident or a police roadside check.
“I’m still surprised by the number of people that take that risk,” she said. “Especially now when we know the severity of what’s at stake.”
But she knows attitudes are changing. She said she sees it in the dedication of the volunteers and the committee members that make up ORN. She said even when the night is hectic, no one complains. Volunteer’s switch roles, whether they are asked to drive, navigate, or answer phones. As long as they can contribute, everyone has a smile on their face, she said.
On this particular Saturday night, the volunteer team of John Retallick, Anne Sutthery and Rick Rathbone have more than enough fun as they wait for another call. Retallick and Rathbone banter back and forth, trading barbs like a pair of high school sophomores. All three have worked in law enforcement, with 72 years of experience between them.
“It’s why we volunteer,” said Retallick, who has 10 years volunteering for ORN in Ridge Meadows and another three in Abbotsford/Mission. “It’s just what we do.”
As they head out on the road shortly after 10:30 p.m., Rathbone said another reason he gives back is because he knows all too well what’s at stake.
“Hell, when we were young, drinking and driving wasn’t really taken all that seriously,” he said as he follows his team members shortly after a pick up at a local pub.
“If you were pulled over the police you’d be lucky to get a slap on the wrist. But thankfully that attitude’s changed. Now, the people we drive home are so happy and I’m just thankful they’ve made the smart choice to give us a call.”
• The last night of ORN is on New Year’s Eve. People can call 604-515-NOSE after the office opens at 8:30 p.m. and give their information for pick up. Because it expected to be their busiest night, they encourage anyone to call about half an hour to an hour ahead of when they would like a ride. To volunteer, go to pacificsportfraservalley.com/orn.