Not just here for photo op, Paul Brandt's the 'real deal' (July 17, 2013)

Written by Val Fortney

Published by Calgary Herald on Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"I clean a basement and people think I've saved High River," says Paul Brandt with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Celebrity has a way of magnifying everything you do and a lot of it you can't control."

As crazy and chaotic as fame can be, there's one thing our homegrown country superstar has learned: If used well, it can make a positive difference in people's lives. Through his charitable Build It Forward Foundation (builditforward.ca), Brandt has helped people in need everywhere from Haiti to Slave Lake.

So it's not surprising to receive an invite to visit him Tuesday morning at the home of retired pastor Edgar Craig, 89, and his 74-year-old wife Evelyn. Brandt is getting dirty helping a group of volunteers with Christian charity Samaritan's Purse (samaritanspurse.ca) perform what's called a "gutout" of the elderly couple's garage - pulling it right down to the studs to stop the mould growth.

He's also playing the role of celebrity as a lineup of TV and radio reporters wait to interview him. As they joke with the country crooner about wearing muddied rubber boots and a baseball cap in place of his usual cowboy hat, the 40-year-old is his usual charming, photogenic self.

He's painfully aware of the fact that in doing so, he's following in the footsteps of other famous Canadians like Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau - who both stopped in for a few hours last week to carry drywall and shovel mud - as the so-called celebrity volunteer. It's a role Brandt admits he's not 100 per cent comfortable with, yet one he knows gets people's attention. "Celebrity amplifies everything," he says as he takes a break from shovelling to do another TV interview. "But I want to come and do the work, too."

Talk to any of the folks here and you'll find that the "Paul Brandt photo-op" is backed up with about two weeks' worth of work in a variety of southern Alberta communities - everywhere from the Morley and Siksika reserves to Black Diamond and here.

"Paul on stage is the same guy I lift buckets with," says Centre Street Church pastor Wayne Smele, who's been out with Samaritan's Purse helping in High River since its hardest hit residents were allowed back in on July 3. "Paul works as hard as everyone else - he is the real deal."

Like other groups such as Mission Possible (Twitter handle: #missionpossible2), Samaritan's Purse has brought thousands of volunteers to flood-hit areas like High River over the past two weeks.

"What I do is connect people and communities," says Brandt. "It's not the money we have in Canada that makes us wealthy, it's the opportunity to pull ourselves out from under."

His other goal on this day is to make celebrities out of ordinary people such as the Craigs.

"It's the stories of real people that capture hearts and get attention," he says. "And Evelyn and Edgar are incredible people."

Evelyn, who mistakenly calls Brandt Claude when first introduced, is the talker of the two. "It's just stuff, that's what my daughter told me," says the one-time teacher as she gives a tour of her now-stripped home that has a red zone designation, along with her ruined tomato plants. "The only thing that really bothers me is that 70 years of family photos have been lost."

While she talks about her lost possessions and the possibility that her house might be deemed not fit for rebuilding, the grandmother of 12 is matter of fact. She even jokes about the silliness of paying taxes on a house "that's definitely in need of a new property assessment."

But ask about all the strangers in her home and she can barely hold back the tears. "People have been unbelievable," she says as she wipes her eyes. "We couldn't have gotten through this without them."

In among the volunteers is 44-year-old Belinda Lefthand, whose home on the Morley reserve was flooded out.

"Paul reached out to our community," says the mom of four. "It's important for me as a First Nations member to be a bridge and reach out between the two societies."

Over the next few months, Samaritan's Purse will continue its work here with the help of the Alberta Red Cross, the two organizations currently in the process of finalizing a partnership.

"It'll help us to assess and clean up several hundred houses," says Samaritan's Purse projects director Darren Tosh. "We'll be here until the job is done - but we could use more volunteers."

Getting the word out that help is still needed in this hard-hit community is why Brandt holds court with the media on this day.

"If my fame can make a difference for places like High River, then I don't mind being that guy," says the celebrity who might not be single-handedly saving High River, but is definitely one of its saviours.

"This one is a marathon rather than a sprint."

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