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By John Sawatzky

When Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) begins a response, we always understand that the homeowners may want to talk about their trauma. That’s what happened in Monte Lake, B.C. in 2022 when MDS responded to the White Rock Lake fire that devastated that small community in 2021.

At first, local people wanted to talk about their anger. They were angry over how they believed the fire was badly managed, and also by how they felt abandoned by local and provincial governments as well as organizations that promised much but seemed unable to deliver. Even the media had moved on to focus on the November flooding in the province.

The comment I regularly heard at the beginning was: “We are forgotten.”

Everyone was also living with the effects of the fire, whether they lost their homes or not. Everywhere you looked there was burnt-out forest; it was never out of sight, along with burned down homes, barns and fences. Their once beautiful community was now blackened in many places with no signs of life; no birds, no deer, no bears, no vegetation, nothing.

So there was a sense of excitement and hope on the part of the whole community when MDS started constructing four new homes. People often came by to watch the new houses take shape. They expressed gratitude when youth volunteers helped with yard and garden clean up, along with planting well over 5,000 seedlings to replace burned trees.

In time, I saw the feelings of being forgotten were no longer front and centre. The sense of anger subsided as people began to express a sense of hope—not just for the four families getting new homes, but the entire community.

In July, we held a community gathering to celebrate community, hope, survival with the ability to thrive. It was a wonderful time of celebration.

Of course, there were many challenges along the way. But none of them could diminish the joy of seeing the community coming together again and of four families getting ready to occupy new houses—something that seemed so impossible in March when we started our response.

By November 1, all four families had been granted occupancy certificates and were able to move into their new homes before the snow arrived. In total, well over 400 volunteer weeks were contributed to bring the project to completion.

With the final family back home, it was time to tear down the camp and leave Monte Lake. On November 4, the community came out to the Westwold Community Hall—MDS’s home base—to help us tear down the camp by removing all temporary structures inside the hall, loading up the supply trailers and leaving the hall in the same condition as we first found it in April when we set up.

With the help of 20 volunteers from Monte Lake, the tear-down was completed in three hours. That was followed by a wonderful potluck lunch and a fun time of laughter, talking and remembering all the goodness of God.

Looking back, I am filled with thankfulness and joy for all the volunteers who were the hands and feet of Jesus in Monte Lake. Together, they helped us bring hope to that community. As one person said: “So many have come here promising so much and delivering so little. MDS came with small promises while delivering so much more.”

For me, it was a labour of love to serve the people of Monte Lake. All I can say is: “All Praise to God.”

John and Linda Sawatzky served in Monte Lake in 2022. John was Project Director and Linda was Office Manager.

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