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When disaster strikes, they answer the call

Long-time volunteers Karen and Willard Martin encourage others to experience the satisfaction of working with Mennonite Disaster Service. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

An Elmira couple has dedicated their retirement time to helping people across North America rebuild their lives after a natural disaster strikes.

Karen and Willard Martin travel to various communities across Canada and the United States as part of their volunteer work for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). There, they aid those whose homes have been impacted by flooding, hurricanes, fires, earthquakes and the like.

“When you see the need … when you see what needs to be done, it’s pretty easy to give,” said Willard, 74. “It is very rewarding to see the results. This past year, we served about nine weeks. During that time, we build houses, finished houses, fixed up houses, did about anything you can think of.”

“We do get paid,” added Karen, 72. “Our payment is seeing what our service means for others who have lost everything, and now have hope.”

The pair first started with MDS back in 2000, when they travelled to Mississippi for relief work. Karen first served on the MDS bi-national board for eight years, before she got into the volunteering side. Willard tagged along and eventually became as devoted to the work.

Since then, they have volunteered in dozens of communities, including five weeks helping out those impacted by catastrophic flooding that hit Grand Forks, B.C. back in May 2018. While out west, Karen was the office administrator, and Willard led the work crew. Between 10-20 volunteers is the usual range for each recovery project.

“I’m very handy, I go in as a crew leader or foreman on job sites because of my ability for building,” said Willard. “Karen is either a chef or an office manager. The office manager has a hefty workload on these job sites.”

Another memorable moment for Willard was spending ample time in Louisiana to help out victims of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005.

Willard said that every volunteer gives their all to finishing projects.

“One of the things that is very obvious about MDS is that we are known and have a very good reputation for going in and doing what we tell them we’re going to do,” said Willard.

“So many organizations and contractors come in and say ‘oh yeah, we’ll do this, this, and this, if you put $10,000 on the line, we’ll buy material with that.’ And then they leave. It’s more of a rip-off.”

Before retirement, Karen worked as an insurance claims adjuster, and Willard was involved with, agriculture sales, drove a tour bus and operated a hardware store. In addition to travelling opportunities, it gives volunteers an opportunity to meet other volunteers and make friends all across North America.

But even more than that, it’s a charitable cause that helps out families during an urgent time of need. John Longhurst of MDS Canada said that in particular, the organization focuses on people who need their services the most, including disabled, elderly, and those who don’t have insurance.

“There are a lot of practical decisions that have to be made by local and state and provincial governments when it comes to how to rebuild,” said Longhurst. “The place where MDS specializes is that we try to fill the gaps. Our focus is on people who are vulnerable and marginal.”

There are different types of volunteers, said Longhurst. One level is skilled leadership, those who are employed in construction or home renovation industries and know-how to build or repair a house – Willard, for example. They would work as crew leaders, long-term, and typically give a month of time or longer to a project. These volunteers would be responsible for ensuring that the work got done correctly.

On the other hand, there are weekly volunteers for anyone of any skill level. For instance, there are currently openings for construction work for the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and they will happily accept anyone willing to come and help out. Volunteers come from all over North America, with even a few hailing from Europe.

“A lot of people might combine a beach vacation with a week of volunteering – that’s very common,” noted Longhurst.

“Fortunately here in Canada, there aren’t as many disasters as they have in the United States. That’s a good thing. With the number of earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires out in the U.S., we have a preponderance of projects down there. That’s just the way it turns out.”

Anyone interested in learning more or volunteering can visit The Mennonite Disaster Services website or call 1-800-241-8111.

“It’s a great way to spend the retirement years,” said Willard. “We’ve met so many great people and made so many good memories. Everyone should consider doing it.”

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