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Mennonite Disaster Service on pause, still celebrating grassroots work in Washington State

April 3, 2020

In early March, before deciding to close all Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) projects through the summer due to COVID-19, MDS Executive Director Kevin King made a trip to visit projects operated by local units—groups of volunteers in congregations who respond to local disasters in their states.

“It was an amazing trip,” said King of this visits to Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Iowa, Nebraska, Washington State and California. “I was so impressed by all the hard and dedicated work being done by so many to help their neighbors recover from disasters big and small.”

Below find a story from Washington State—the faces and places of MDS following God’s call to help others.

“I had to adjust”

By Susan Kim

Every day for more than four years, Albert Roberts has worked on his two-story octagonal cabin in the woods in north-central Washington state.

Using 16-foot logs cut in a mill located in Omak, he inched along with construction, building on the remote site where his two-story cabin once stood.

The old cabin survived five fires before it was destroyed by the 2015 Okanogan Complex Fire, which burned nearly 305,000 acres. Since then, Roberts has been living in an old structure on his 25-acre farm, caring for livestock and produce to make ends meet.

When volunteers from the MDS Washington Unit arrived last year, Roberts was a bit uncomfortable—even though he had agreed to accept their help. “I had to adjust,” he said. “I work alone all the time.”

Brought up in the Devils Lake, North Dakota, area, Roberts was used to being self-sufficient as a child and has continued that independence during the three decades he’s lived in Washington.

Then strangers came to help finish the cabin, at elevation 2,400 feet, surrounded by a breathtaking view of the mountains. “After a half a day working with them, I realized they actually knew what they were doing,” said Roberts.

Reflecting on the project, Kevin Froese, vice chair of the Washington Unit, said the work often reflects the creative, independent mentality of the communities they’re helping. That sometimes means working on unusual structures, like the one owned by Roberts.

That included helping a fire survivor finish a home he was building out of old crates in the town of Pateros after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire.

“People are out here because they like their solitude,” said Froese. “Yet they really appreciate what we do.”

Susan Kim is a freelance writer.