Mennonite Disaster Service Dedicates Four Houses After Major Repairs Completed Thanks in Part to the Abbotsford Disaster Relief Fund

Grants & Funding, Stories of Impact

“What brought us together was a disaster, a loss, a trauma, something we can never forget.” With those words, Mark Rempel of the Mennonite Disaster Service‘s (MDS) BC unit began the first of four home dedications, in which homes are blessed by a pastor, on September 10th at the home of Ted and Michelle Swanson of Abbotsford. 

The event brought together MDS volunteers and staff, homeowners, and representatives from organizations that contributed to MDS’s rebuilding efforts, such as the Abbotsford Community Foundation, the Adventurer’s Foundation, and the Canadian Lutheran World Relief. Also in attendance was a representative from the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce.

They all had gathered to celebrate the completion of MDS’s work following last November’s devastating flood. One of the most severe natural disasters to strike the province, a catastrophic flood, was triggered by a weather system that dumped a month’s worth of rain in the area in two days. Rivers and creeks, unable to handle the volume of water, spilled their banks and swallowed up farms, businesses and homes in low-lying areas. About 20,000 people were forced to flee to higher ground.

MDS responded by providing 65 volunteers and financial support to repair six homes in the Fraser Valley. Another 135 people served in Princeton, 215 kilometres east of Abbotsford, where 40 flooded homes were repaired. It was not a traditional MDS project, Rempel said. “Unlike our usual projects, where people volunteer for a week, we had day volunteers,” he said. “Often the day before, we didn’t know how many were coming or their skill level. But it all worked out.” 

Rempel noted donations began to pour in after the flood. “The question was, ‘What can we do?'” he said. “We wanted to use the money responsibly, put it to the best use possible.” “The goal with all the houses” Rempel said, was to “rebuild them to a standard as good or better than before.”

Pictured here: The dedication of Ted Swanson’s home

Ted and Michelle Swanson’s Story

When the evacuation order came, Michelle Swanson thought: “Wow—this is really happening!” Michelle, 21, who lives with her father, Ted, 60, on Sumas Prairie, didn’t expect the water to flood their home on that mid-November day in 2021. Until that point, all the flooding was to the west of their home. But then the Nooksack River in nearby Washington State overflowed its banks, sending water into Sumas Prairie and the Swanson’s home. “It was two metres high,” said Ted, who works in auto collision repair. They left at about 4PM, grabbing what they could. “All our cherished belongings were lost,” he said. “We were lucky to save a few things.”

When the water receded, he took a couple weeks off work to clean out his house. “That’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done,” he said, adding he was grateful for some local residents who provided assistance. What worried him the most was how Michelle was taking it. “She was strong,” he said of his daughter, who recently graduated from studying social work. “I’m proud of her. She lost all her things, too.”

The Swansons came on the Mennonite Disaster Service’s (MDS) radar early. “As I checked in town to see who needed help, people asked me, ‘what about Ted?'” said Rempel. After checking his situation, Rempel offered MDS’s help. “Right from the first meeting, it was agreed between us,” he said. “We trusted each other.”

Fixing up the Swanson’s house posed some challenges. “But the right people with the right skills showed up at the right time,” he said. Rempel praised the work of Shelley Dueck of Mennonite Central Committee B.C., who was seconded to MDS as the project coordinator. “It was a unique partnership with MCC,” he said, noting Dueck was also adept at painting and installing floors. “It was a privilege to help, to come alongside people,” Dueck said. 

On September 10th, as he signed the job card to finalize the repairs to his house, “I feel good,” Ted said. It was tempting to dwell on the past, he added, but “it’s not healthy to grieve over the things we lost; the most important thing is we have a home to live in again.”

“We will forever be grateful for all the help,” said Ted. “We really appreciate it.”

Pictured here: Ted and Michelle Swanson

Dorothy and Al Balzer’s Story

Next up was the home of Al and Dorothy Balzer in rural Abbotsford. The older couple, who live on the property beside the Sumas drainage canal in Abbotsford, had watched the water rise in mid-November 2021. Along with the bridge, the dike along the river broke, filling their riverside house with water.

“We waited a couple days to be rescued by boat,” said Dorothy, 72, noting the area was “a massive lake.” She said it was a “funny feeling” leaving their house this way with a suitcase and some valuables, clothes, passports and medications. It was also sad; “we were heading into the unknown.” 

Along with thousands of others, they were taken to nearby Chilliwack for safety before going to live with their daughter and her family in Langley, BC, for four and half months. It didn’t help that Al, 76, got sick soon after the water receded — they think he picked up an infection from cleaning out his soggy house. He was in the hospital for eight days.

When Rempel said he could help repair their house, “we were overwhelmed,” Dorothy said. “It gave us the courage to look ahead.” She wiped her eyes as she spoke. “It brings tears to my eyes when I think about it,” she said. “The volunteers became our friends.” “We would never have believed we would need help from MDS,” said Al, noting they grew up in a Mennonite church but are attending a Baptist church now. “It’s so amazing people came to help us.”

At their home dedication on September 10th, the couple signed the job card to indicate MDS’s work was done. “I’m so emotional,” Al said. “We never could have done this alone. MDS did an awesome job.” “MDS brought us from disaster to a house that is better than before,” added Dorothy.

Pictured here: Shelley Dueck with Dorothy and Al Balzer

Tom Johnstone’s Story

The final two dedications were held in Sandy Faber’s backyard, in the Arnold community. Faber, was joined by her neighbour, Tom Johnstone. MDS worked on the restoration of both houses.

After the dedication, Johnstone, 55, shared how MDS had come alongside at his time of greatest need — when his wife, Rebecca, was in the hospital. Rebecca and Tom were living in the house when the evacuation order came. “We didn’t hear the siren,” said Johnstone. “A neighbour came to the door and told us to get out.” Johnstone carried Rebecca, who had a history of heart issues, down the stairs and pushed her out the door in her wheelchair before carrying her into the car, along with their pets and personal belongings.

They spent a week in an evacuation centre in nearby Chilliwack before she began to have trouble breathing. She was readmitted to the hospital. “I didn’t have space to think about the house,” said Tom of his time supporting his wife during her illness. “I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.” While in the hospital, Rebecca was diagnosed with cancer. “It was a hard time,” said Johnstone. “The house was the last thing on my mind. MDS took the burden off me.”

When Rempel said the organization would repair his house, Johnstone was overwhelmed. “So many people came out of nowhere to help,” he said, adding it allowed him to spend time with his wife in the hospital. Rebecca’s condition improved enough she could be released to come back home where she could use a wheel chair accessible, walk-in shower built by MDS—something that isn’t standard issue, Rempel said.

“We don’t normally do that, but the best bathroom tiler in the area volunteered to help so we were ready to go,” he said. Johnstone noted she only used it once, “but she appreciated it so much.” MDS volunteers also painted her bedroom purple — her favourite colour. “Also, not our standard paint colour,” laughed Rempel. Unfortunately, Rebecca had to return to the hospital after a month. She died May 3rd at age 56. She and Tom had been married 32 years. “It was a short time, but she could say she had a home again before she passed,” an emotional Johnstone said. 

What was especially meaningful for Johnstone was forming a bond with Rempel over the loss of their partners — Rempel’s wife, Heather, passed away from cancer in 2008. “It was a special time, walking with Tom in his time of loss,” Rempel said. “He shared his story of losing his wife to cancer; he said he wanted me to know I wasn’t alone,” said Johnstone.

The time since the flood and Rebecca’s passing has been “a slow walk out of the darkness,” said Johnstone, who is planning to retire next year from his work as an armoured car driver. “With help, I’m getting there; I’m seeing the light,” he said, adding, “MDS was there when I needed it the most.”

Pictured here: Mark Rempel with Tom Johnstone

The Abbotsford Disaster Relief Fund (ADRF) was created in partnership with the University of the Fraser Valley and the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce just days after the November 2021 floods began. After raising over $4 million, the fund continues to support front-line agencies providing essential services, as well as local farmers and businesses. The ADRF was able to provide significant financial assistance in the rebuilding process of all of these homes through a grant to MDS. We’re grateful we could support MDS in this recovery effort and a special thank you goes out to our generous donors and partners. To learn more about the fund, click here.

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