December 18, 2021
“The Mennonites are coming!”
That was the buzz around the town of Princeton, B.C. in early December when the first 16 Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers arrived to help residents hard-hit by flooding in mid-November.
People in the town are “so exhausted,” said Princeton mayor Spencer Coyne. But knowing help was arriving put “a glimmer of hope in their eyes.”
The volunteers, who came from B.C., Alberta and Manitoba, spent a week helping residents pump out water, muck out basements and dispose of damaged items.
As he drove around town, seeing the MDS vehicles “made me smile,” Coyne said. “I was grinning ear to ear.”
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Knowing help was arriving made Coyne feel better, but he knows there is still a long way to go.
Sitting in his office, the mayor listed off the challenges: About 300 families displaced, the water still unsafe to drink, the sewage system not fully working yet, and still working on the natural gas supply.
Despite that, the town is pulling together.
“We are a small town, we know each other, we help each other,” he said.
An important part of that effort is the Princeton Baptist Church, which is the hub for the town’s recovery efforts.
“We’ve leaned on them pretty hard,” said Coyne of how the town asked them to take the lead in various recovery efforts. “Kyle is awesome, he’s the heart of the community. The church knows who needs the most help. Honest to God, I don’t know where’d we be without that church.”
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For Princeton Baptist Church pastor Kyle Nichols, it’s just a matter of doing what the church is supposed to do.
“We told the town we would do whatever we could do to help,” he said.
The church, located on a hill above the town, is the only one still fully operational in Princeton.
Another one closed in summer, two others were flooded and the fourth lost its pastor to COVID in late November.
Today it’s the town’s main food bank, used clothing depot, firewood distribution centre and volunteer clearing house.
It’s also the place to go for clean water; a water truck and pallets of bottled water are in the parking lot for residents.
“We are just happy to help,” said Nichols of his congregation, part of the Fellowship Baptist Church denomination. “This is a time for the church to come alongside the community and serve them and give a message of hope.”
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The church is also home base for MDS, which has parked its office trailer and tool container in the parking lot.
In front of the trailer is a hand-written sign that says: “We are here to help you. Home clean-up and muck out (no cost, no obligation). Come on in.”
If nobody was in the office, people were directed to Tia Tolmie, volunteer coordinator at the church.
“My job is to get people on a list for help,” she said.
Like the mayor, Tolmie sees the toll the disaster is taking on residents.
“I’m definitely starting to see tiredness, physically and emotionally,” she said.
Carolyn Riel coordinates the food and clothing bank for the church.
“Now that immediate crisis is over, the enormity of the loss is now hitting people,” she said, adding there now is a need for mental health support.
“Talking and listening to people is so important,” she added.
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Denis Sabourin knows how vital that is.
The semi-retired cartographer, who also works as facilities manager at The Meeting Place, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Winnipeg, was part of the first group of volunteers to arrive in Princeton.
“We aren’t just rebuilding homes, we’re rebuilding hope,” said Sabourin, who has done a total of 15 MDS service trips.
“We do that by listening to people. It’s healing for them to know someone wants to hear their story. We have so much to give just by listening.”
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For Coyne, knowing MDS is in town gives people hope.
“Sometimes we feel so alone here, so remote,” he said.
“The fact MDS came here to help our community, assisting people who might otherwise not receive help, is absolutely invaluable,” he said. “People feel like a weight is being shifted off their shoulders.”
Looking ahead, he knows there’s a long way to go.
“There are a lot of homes to be rebuilt,” he said. “A lot of people lost everything. They’ve got nothing.”
But, like a family, “we’ll still be here, doing what we have to do,” he said.
And if anyone wants to volunteer with MDS to help, “you can be part of our family, too.”
People interested in volunteering for Princeton recovery efforts can contact Kelsey Friesen or call 1.866.261.1274. Donations to the B.C. Wildfire and Flood fund are also welcome.
John Longhurst, MDS Canada Communications