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Robert and Michelle pose for a pic a couch indoorsRobert and Michelle pose for a pic a couch indoors

It’s the things she lost to the fire that still hits hard for Michelle Maisonneuve.

“I keep remembering all the things I lost, the things I thought I’d keep the rest of my life, my books and photos,” she said of what the 2021 wildfire in Monte Lake, B.C. took away when it destroyed her home.

“Only the memories are left.”

For her partner, Robert Hugh, it’s the three cats they lost.

“The stuff didn’t matter,” he said. But the loss of the pets sticks with him.

“For weeks afterwards, I felt terrible, I still do,” he said, noting they were able to take two cats with them before the fire roared into the community.

Maisonneuve, 50 and Hugh, 57, lost their home to the White Rock Lake fire, which devastated the small community almost a year ago.

“It’s still unbelievable,” Hugh said, thinking back to that day when the fire came.

“We thought we were fine,” said Maisonneuve, noting the house had been saved by local firefighting efforts in 2017 when another fire came close.

“We thought we were safe then, we’d be safe now,” she said.

But the fire, which started 20 kilometres away from Monte Lake, jumped the lake across from their house. It was totally destroyed.

“We tried to fight it, but we couldn’t,” said Hugh of efforts to hold back the flames.

Without a home, they stayed at a local hotel for a while before landing in a cabin at a nearby RV park where Hugh does maintenance and odd jobs.

When Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Canada came to town earlier this year offering assistance to area homeowners, Hugh didn’t go to the meeting—after months of battling with the provincial government, he was worn out.

But Maisonneuve went, optimistic that something good might come of it.

“I came away with hope,” she said after hearing Ross Penner, Director of Canadian Operations, and Gerald Dyck, Chair of the B.C. Unit, explain what MDS could do.

“I came away with hope,”

— Michelle Maisonneuve

She asked Hugh to talk to someone from MDS. He said yes and met up with Dyck. The two went for a long walk.

“I basically unloaded on him,” Hugh said of how he got out months of anger and frustration over the slow pace of government assistance.

“At the end of it, Gerald said ‘We can build you a house.’ It blew my mind. It still blows my mind.”

But the offer sounded too good to be true.

“I asked him, ‘What’s the catch?’ He said, ‘There is no catch. We just want to build you a house.’”

“I thought we might have to walk away from our lives here,” said Maisonneuve, who grew up on a farm in the area and works at the local store.

“It’s so peaceful here,” added Hugh, who worked for years in construction in Vancouver where he battled traffic and congestion.

And now they look forward to the day when their new house is ready for move-in.

“The words don’t come for how grateful we feel towards MDS,” Hugh said, nevertheless giving it a try.

“Awesome, fantastic, incredible, that’s what comes to mind when I think about what MDS is doing.”

“They’re fantastic people, hard workers,” added Maisonneuve.

When told funding for the new house comes from donors across Canada, Hugh said: “All we can say is ‘thank-you’ to everyone who donated to help us get back home.”

“And they are all welcome to drop by for a cup of coffee!” added Maisonneuve.

MDS Canada needs more weekly volunteers in Monte Lake. If you can help, check out the volunteer opportunities!

John Longhurst, MDS Canada Communications

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