It was -21 C on Fenchurch Avenue in Princeton on Wednesday, Feb 23, as men and women in white coveralls shovelled debris into wheelbarrows, knocked out drywall, and cleared mud from homes destroyed in the Nov. 14, 2021, flood.
They are volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), many from Abbotsford and Vancouver, helping to rebuild houses that might otherwise be abandoned or condemned in the wake of the disaster.
“The people from MDS are like a bunch of angels,” said Mario Loutef, who lost everything he owned in the flood. “Absolute angels, for sure. Without them I don’t know where we would be.”
Loutef and his partner Melody – who now have a furnace, electricity, and interior walls – are just two of many people being assisted by MDS.
According to organization spokesperson John Longhurst, 93 volunteers have visited Princeton since the beginning of December 2021. They’re working on 43 homes, nine of which will be completely rebuilt.
The group, which works with an American counterpart and often responds to destructive hurricane and tornado events in that country, reacted to the Princeton flood almost immediately.
Longhurst told the Spotlight ordinarily MDS enters a community approximately six months after an initial trauma, while the Red Cross and Salvation Army provide initial first response.
However, Mennonite congregations from the Lower Mainland pressed to become involved early on in Princeton’s situation.
“There was a huge outpouring of donations, over $500,000, so quickly from people who wanted to respond, and also people phoning up, wanting to volunteer,” Longhurst said.
“Because there were so many willing hands we were able to jump in very quickly. By the first week of December we had volunteers on the ground helping to muck up.”
MDS volunteers pay their own travel costs, and receive lodging and food when they arrive on scene. In Princeton, they are housed at Rock Ridge Canyon, and generally come for one week at a time.
Some of the same people answered the call in Williams Lake, after the 2018 wildfire, and following the flood in Grand Forks in 2019.
They are from all walks of life, according to Longhurst.
“Oh they are students, farmers, accountants, pastors, people who do maintenance. It’s all over the map. Men, women, young, old, all are welcome to service.”
They are supervised by construction experts, but there is no experience necessary. “You don’t need to know which end of a hammer to hold. All we ask is for a willing heart, and good spirits, and a willingness to get tired by the end of the day,” Longhurst said.
While the labour is free, generally homeowners pay for materials.
However there are also MDS funds available for especially vulnerable people. “These might be people with no insurance, or limited insurance, or who are elderly or disabled…those who would be without financial means to recover.”
And there is an important human connection, Longhurst added.
“Princeton people are still struggling with the after effects of the disaster…One of the things we tell volunteers is that if a homeowner wants to talk, you put down your tools and you listen.”
Longhurst expects MDS will remain in Princeton until midsummer.
Gemma Bard, 20, attends Bible college in Abbotsford, and spent her reading week in Princeton.
“I’m here because I know people need help,” she told The Spotlight.
“I want to start paying attention to what people need and actually doing it and helping….We do a lot of reading about what Jesus did, and not a lot of doing it. I want to start doing.”
Luke Vanderhoek, 23, was also in Princeton last week. He too is taking biblical studies, with the aim of becoming a sports chaplain.
“See a need, fill a need,” he said, while admitting there have been challenges. “A little bit. I mean, it’s labour and I’ve been sitting at a desk for a couple of months…It’s a pretty big change, but it’s a fun change,” he said.
“It’s been great being here in Princeton. Everyone is so nice. I really couldn’t be happier to be here right now.”
Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne stated MDS is providing a tremendous service to the town.
“I cannot express how thankful I am that the MDS and all their amazing volunteers who are in our community to help. Without their efforts it would be hard to think of where we would be in our recovery. Thank you does not seem like adequate enough words to express just how grateful we all are.”