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Two months ago they knew nothing about the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. But soon 14 Winnipeggers will be spending two weeks there as volunteers.

The group, members of The Meeting Place, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in downtown Winnipeg, will be leaving February 20 to serve there with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), an organization that rebuilds and repairs homes for people affected by natural disasters.

While in Saipan, the group will work on homes damaged by Typhoon Yutu in 2018.

The typhoon, the strongest ever to hit the island, made landfall on October 25, 2018. The majority of the buildings in the southern part of Saipan, a part of the commonwealth of the U.S., were damaged or destroyed.

“We’ll be repairing and rebuilding roofs,” says Denis Sabourin, who is organizing the trip on behalf of the church.

Sabourin, a semi-retired geomatics specialist who works as maintenance coordinator at The Meeting Place, has served with MDS eight times in the last five years at various locations around Canada and the U.S. This will be the first time he has served with the organization outside of North America.

“It’s definitely an adventure,” he says, noting it will take a couple of days to get to Saipan. “But it will be worth it when I see the joy in the eyes of people whose homes we are repairing. That always feels good.”

For Jeremy Oelke, 33, a commercial roofer in Winnipeg, the trip is a chance to put his skills to use to help others.

He signed up because “my life has been too consistent and repetitive. This is an opportunity for me to leave the cycle and serve God in a way that uses my skills.”

“It’s appropriate for my life, in a good way,” he says of his first-ever time with MDS.

Grant Sidwall, 69, retired ten years ago from a technical career with computers. Since that time, he’s been keeping busy doing home renovations and construction.

For him the trip is also a chance to put his skills to good use. “I’ve wanted to go on an MDS trip for awhile. When Denis asked me to go to Saipan, it fit with my schedule.”

Jake Degroot, 57, retired at the end of January after working for 30 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His first time with MDS is “a time for me to give back and help however I can to those who need help the most.”

He also sees the trip “as part of my spiritual and personal growth.”

In addition to going to Saipan this year, volunteers from the church have served at High River, AB, Williams Lake and Grand forks, BC, Detroit, MI, La Grange, TX, Lafayette, LA and Puerto Rico. Altogether, they have donated over 3,000 hours of labour.

“It’s always a challenge to pull things together, but it is so satisfying at the end,” says Sabourin, who organizes the trips.

“It’s about so much more than fixing or building a house. It’s about restoring hope and faith. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

John Longhurst, Communications Coordinator, MDS Canada

Photo above: Members of The Meeting Place who are going to Sapian with MDS. (Back row, l-r): Denis Jobin, Ken Dawes, Dave Barber, Rikki Oelke, Jake Degroot, Daniel Froese, Jeremy Oelke, Amanda Brooks. (Front row, l-r): Denis Sabourin, Henry Thiessen, John Sullivan, David Klassen. Missing: Grant Sidwall, Jason Scott.

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