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Finding Comfort: Local hotel honoured for hospitality during crisis

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Cathy Dobson

When 85 evacuees escaped from fire at Kenwick Place and took shelter at Sarnia’s Comfort Inn last November, no one could have imagined the strong bond that would come from such an experience.

Not only did the evacuees develop close friendships with one another, they came to know the hotel staff as confidants who would go the extra mile to help them out.

“It was very unsettling for a lot of the Kenwick residents because they didn’t know what was going to happen and when they could go home,” said Myles Vanni, executive director of The Inn of the Good Shepherd, which helped co-ordinate services for nearly 200 fire victims.

“Many were elderly, many had high anxiety or were disabled, and there were families with small children,” he said.

The evacuees were transported to several hotels the night after an electrical fire forced them from their apartment building.

Those who arrived at the Comfort Inn fled their building in the middle of a cold night, some with little more than their night clothes.

“We did whatever we could to get them what they needed,” said staff member Kelly Hyatt. “If what they needed was someone to talk to, we were here for them.”

“I am so proud of my staff for what they did,” said the hotel’s general manager Barb Maxfield.

That commitment to the Kenwick evacuees has won the Comfort Inn staff an award from their parent company, The Sunray Group.

Sunray, which purchased Sarnia’s Comfort Inn last year, launched a holiday spirit initiative in December that provided each of its 25 Canadian hotels with $100 to benefit the local community.

Maxfield’s staff knew immediately how they would use it.

The money went toward a big Christmas party for all the evacuees and included a home-cooked turkey dinner brought to the hotel by staff members on Dec. 18.

By that time, most of the evacuees had returned to the Kenwick, but the staff wanted to do something special for them, Maxfield explained.

“They were all here for about a week, some of them longer, but before they even left, we talked about doing a Christmas dinner,” she said.

“While they were here, we had a movie night and things for the kids to do,” said Karen Kennedy who works at the front desk.

“We experienced their loss with them and we got attached to them,” she said. “We missed them when they left.”

The City of Sarnia agreed to provide a bus and 68 of the evacuees returned to The Comfort Inn for a Christmas dinner with all the fixings, presents for the kids, and a visit from Santa.

It cost far more than the $100 seed money provided by Sunray but the staff pitched in, cooking at their own homes since the hotel doesn’t have a full kitchen of its own. They dug into their own wallets to provide the food and gifts.

Sunray offered prizes to its top three hotels that best demonstrated holiday spirit.

Sarnia’s Comfort Inn won, hands down.

As first place winners, the Comfort Inn staff won $500 to be given to the charity of their choice, The Inn of the Good Shepherd.

Another $500 from Sunray was awarded to the staff to do what they liked.

“We haven’t decided what to do with it yet,” said Maxfield. “We want to make it grow and do something charitable.”

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