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Helping neighbours across the continent

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers complete Grand Forks rebuilds, begin new ones

When the water rose during the night on May 10, 2018, Radek Grundel left his house to go wake his neighbours. The river was already in the street, 200 metres or more from its banks.

It would creep higher, to around the height of the doorhandles in his home and it would later lift the fridge from its place in the kitchen and drift it out into the dining room.

When he and his wife Geordie were bouncing around between temporary homes and shelters in the wake of the flood, “I was anxious to get in and start working on the house,” Radek said.

Like other houses directly south of the Interfor yard, there wasn’t much left to work on, but a lot left to clean up. Now, after a fall, winter and spring of cleaning and doing their best to repair what they could (efforts that would send Radek to the hospital twice after aggravating a heart condition), the Grundels have a livable home again, thanks to the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers who have been working on their home since May 6.

“It was like angels came down,” said Radek about the moment he learned (MDS) was coming to help his family rebuild. “Just watch,” he remembers MDS project coordinators Susan and Peter Thiessen saying to him.

“It it wasn’t for these people, I don’t know how we would have done it. I would probably have died if I tried fixing it [because of my heart].”

Even when he heard the good news from MDS, Radek’s heart nearly got going a bit too fast.

“He said he almost had a heart attack when we said we were going to help,” said Susan.

MDS selected the Grundels as a family to help last spring, on the recommendation of the Boundary Flood Recovery team. Soon after, more than 200 volunteers from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, B.C., Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Mexico began rotating through town, sleeping in bunks at the River Valley Community Church and milling around the Grundel and other families’ homes for the last 10 weeks, reframing, repainting, reflooring and rebuilding. In a celebration last Friday, a team of volunteers gave the keys back to the Grundels – the family’s home is livable again.

“It’s unbelievable what we can harness with volunteers who are willing to work,” said Peter.

The Thiessens came to help MDS when they were faced with retirement.

“We were not about to just be idle,” Peter said. “That’s just not who we are.”

Other volunteers, whether 80 or 18, have travelled to Grand Forks this summer out of a recognition within their faith.

“We have a recognition that we should love our neighbour,” said Peter.

But the Thiessens’ conception of neighbour extends past the end of their street in Okotoks, Alta, and beyond provincial borders too. Like the volunteers who have driven themselves across a continent to help people in Grand Forks, a neighbour can be human somewhere who needs a boost.

“Whoever crosses our path is a neighbour,” Peter said. “But we go to disaster scenarios – more needy neighbours.”

In their time in Grand Forks, MDS volunteers have been fed by locals passing by work sites, and, in the case of those who have been working on the Grundels’ home, have been taken for fishing trips too by the very neighbours they were helping.

“We have to say thanks to those people,” Radek said. “It is amazing what those people do.”

In a speech to the Grundels, flood recovery case managers and MDS volunteers last Friday, Peter closed the circle on his promise to the family.

“Radek, your grandkids can come home now.”

MDS volunteers began their next Grand Forks restoration project on Monday and will continue to work in the city on a handful more houses until October.

Mennonite Disaster Service coordinators Peter and Susan Thiessen say that one of the main pillars of the organization’s success is the size and conviction of its volunteer team. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)
Radek Grundel hugs Evelyn Peters-Rojas, a Mennonite Disaster Services coordinator. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)