Two Halifax university students pulling a little green wagon are weaving their way through rural Nova Scotia communities impacted by April’s mass shooting, leaving tulips in their wake.
Friends Adrian Delli Colli and Ireland Thurler began their charity Wagon Walk on Thursday in Portapique, N.S., and were set to finish 150 kilometres away in Enfield on Sunday afternoon. They have raised thousands for the victim’s families and local community projects.
“It’s really been a life-changing event,” Delli Colli said Saturday, as he and Thurler walked outside Truro.
Delli Colli, originally from New Hampshire, is in his second year at Dalhousie University. He was devastated when he first heard about the mass shooting that left 22 people dead.
He said he comes from an area where gun violence is more of a systemic issue, and to have this happen in a place where he felt “incredibly safe” was a shock.
When he realized that the gunman had travelled roughly 150 kilometres before being caught, Delli Colli said he thought that number was “too big.”
“It’s something that affected me,” he said. “I get that feeling in my stomach when I talk about it.
“These are people. And they’re their teachers, retired firefighters, members of the community, social workers, all people that these communities had stolen from them.”
He immediately knew he wanted to create something positive using that route, and reclaiming it with the victims in mind.
Passionate about endurance athletics, Delli Colli, who is taking a recreation management degree, decided to walk the entire route. It was a way to better understand the impact of the shooting on the communities and how they are coming together.
He and Thurler are pulling a wagon filled with 23 packages of tulip bulbs, one for each of the victims, including VON nurse Kristen Beaton’s unborn child.
By the time they are finished, they will have handed them to family or community members at their stops in Portapique, Wentworth, Debert, Shubenacadie and Enfield.
Delli Colli said the communities can decide where the bulbs should be planted, a reflection of the resiliency and forward-thinking the project sought because the tulips will grow every year.
Despite the blisters, long hours and trekking more than 40 kilometres a day, Delli Colli and Thurler said they have been overwhelmed with support. He said they have learned so much from the dozens of people who have walked with them for short stretches or stopped to talk.
They were especially thankful to the various local fire departments who have hosted them each night, or provided escorts on busy stretches of road.
There was this one large hill that Delli Colli said felt rather daunting as they struggled up all alone.
“You then think about the families and the pain that they’re going through, and you’re like, ‘What’s a hill?'”
Thurler, from South Mountain, Ont., said they were excited to get some star power behind their cause as well. Actor Jonathan Torrens dropped in to see them at the Onslow Belmont Fire Brigade Friday night, and arrived with ice cream.
As of Saturday afternoon, the pair had raised more than $4,000 that will be split between the Nova Scotia Remembers Legacy Society for a scholarship fund established to benefit the children of victims, and the Portapique Community Build-Up to revamp the local hall.
But a meeting with Nick Beaton, Kristen’s husband, and their young son, Dax, was a powerful moment both Delli Colli and Thurler.
“That’s a child that will reap the benefits of the scholarship program … and that just fired me up so much because it made me feel like we’re on the right track here,” Delli Colli said.
Tiff Ward, chair of the Legacy Society, said she was amazed to see two young people put such a project together, but also to take the time to learn about how the communities are coping and looking ahead.
For Andrew MacDonald of the Build-Up project, he said the money is going toward work to expand the existing Portapique hall and create a new playground. He said it will turn the spot into a real hub that will benefit the community for decades to come.
MacDonald, who lives in Portapique, said he wasn’t originally sure about the idea of retracing the path the gunman took in April.
But after meeting both students, he said he felt the energy, respect and humility behind the project.
“It’s almost redefining the path, which is really nice,” MacDonald said.
“You can walk along that route and not feel bad about it. It makes it feel like fun and lighthearted and inclusive. And it’s a really special feeling.”
Both Delli Colli and Thurler are meeting a crowd in Milford around 1 p.m. Sunday. The crowd will will join them for the last kilometres along Highway 2 coming into Enfield, and all are welcome.