One of the homes Mennonite Disaster Services is building for a homeowner who lost their home to the Spokin Lake Road wildfire in 2017.

Mennonite volunteers help wildfire victims rebuild homes

Volunteers sometimes come for a week at a time

Almost intoxicating.

That’s how Peter Thiessen of the Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) describes the opportunity to rebuild homes for people who lost theirs in the Cariboo Chilcotin’s 2017 wildfires.

“Working with volunteers, or with people who choose to give a week of their time to serve their neighbour is amazing,” Thiessen said as he and his team began putting in the footings for a home in the Spokin Lake Road area. “They have tremendous spirit and attitude. It’s great to be able to harness that for a week.”

Thiessen and a team of as many as 24 volunteers at a time began the work on May 21, based out of Cariboo Bethel Church where they are currently camping out.

They are rebuilding two homes lost to the Spokin Lake Road fire and one to the Hanceville-Riske Creek fire.

“We spread people around as they are needed. Up the road they are pouring a basement floor and that’s a priority so they get more people this morning. Every day we decide what we need at given site,” Thiessen said.

The homes are bungalows and will each take about four months to be completed.

Funding for the homes comes from many sources.

“In this case the home owner had some insurance, but not enough so we will connect those dots by fundraising from a variety of sources,” Thiessen explained. “That’s not my task, it’s done by our Winnipeg head office. Ross Penner, our director of Canadian Operations, said he would find the money. Evelyn Peters-Rojas, with volunteer development, said she would find the people and we said we’d build it. It’s simple, we each have our tasks.”

Some of the volunteers are students attending Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford and an individual private donor has committed to pay their tuition if they spend eight weeks of the year with MDS doing relief work, Thiessen said, noting the donor has offered the same to three or four colleges in Western Canada.

“Any student can apply for that,” he added.

Read more: 2017 wildfires focus of Williams Lake community art project

One of those students is Justin Spencer from Sorrento, B.C. who has worked as a firefighter for four seasons.

He wasn’t fighting fires in the Cariboo Chilcotin last summer, but in the Okanagan, and said after working for several years as a firefighter it’s a valuable experience to come to a fire-impacted area to help rebuild.

“I’ve built homes for MDS four months total now,” he said. “I spent three weeks in a First Nations community in South Dakota building houses after tornadoes, and then I’ve been here.”

Another student Heather Belanger, is from Campbell River, and said she was on cooking duty to feed the volunteers, but had taken the morning off to come work at the building site.

Beulah Shirk from Wisconsin normally works in a nursing home, but loves to volunteer with MDS whenever she can.

“I’ve been doing it for three years and every year I’ve been at a different place,” Shirk said. “The first year I was in Alabama, then I was in Washington and then West Virginia.”

About half a kilometre away on Shefler Road, Julia Ann Leid and Anetta Hoover, both from Wisconsin, were up on ladders nailing house wrap on the upper level of the new home being built there.

Hoover said it’s her fourth time volunteering at an MDS site and she’s also helped with cooking.

Smiling, they said they caught the train and then the bus to get to Williams Lake.

Theissen said they meet with the owner and consult with them through a full interview to see if they qualify before deciding to build the homes.

“If they qualify, then we find out what their needs are and then we design accordingly.”

The homes are simple and normally about 1,000 square foot in size.

“In this one we are making some adjustments because the woman’s daughter was in an accident a few years ago and became wheelchair bound so we are putting in a separate suite for the daughter,” he said.

“So it will be a two-in-one and will be a bit larger.”



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MDS volunteers Julia Ann Leid (left) and Anetta Hoover work at one of the homes they a rebuilding in the Spokin Lake Road area.

Volunteer Mary Ella Martin from Wisconsin and Heather Belanger from Campbell River take a break from cooking duty to help with the footing work at the site.

MDS construction project manager Peter Thiessen.

A local concrete company is hired to help at the site.

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