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MDS Project Directors Deeply Rooted in Service

December 16, 2015

When Peter Thiessen was a teenager, one of his neighbors, a farmer, was injured so badly he couldn’t do the harvest. “It was Halloween night,” recalled Peter, “and my father got all the guys in the community together and we worked for that farmer all through the night.”

Growing up in Manitoba, Peter’s family and his neighbors consistently showed him what it meant to live a life that was focused on helping others.

“Where does service find its beginnings?” Peter reflected. “My father demonstrated how we are supposed to respond to our neighbors. We were there through the night with tractors and cultivators.”

Now, Peter and his wife, Susan, who live in Okotoks, Alberta, near Calgary, traveled south to the West Virginia, to serve as Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) project directors, helping to organize and support volunteer teams as they rebuild “driveway bridges” in the mountainous state.

This year, repeat flooding has wiped out more than 300 driveway bridges, or also known as private access bridges, that are often the only way for people to come and go from their homes.

Susan, who manages the project office set up in the Duval Volunteer Fire Department in nearby Griffithsville, also cooks meals for the volunteer groups. She and Peter live in an RV, parked beside the fire station, while volunteers sleep in the fire station.

Susan also began a life of service at a very young age. “When I was in 12th grade, I went to South Dakota and helped with some mucking out after flooding there. That was my first introduction to MDS, though of course I heard about MDS growing up in Manitoba.”

One goal, different roles

Peter and Susan met during college. “We were in the same singing group,” explained Susan.

They have worked together on many MDS sites, including Alberta after flooding along the High River in 2013, along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina devastated that region ten years ago, and, two decades ago, in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky with a service project connected to the Mennonite Central Committee. They worked for two weeks in Nicaragua, and traveled to Bolivia as translators.

As she works in the kitchen planning dinner for 16 volunteers (her “Eatmore Bars” received rave reviews), she thinks back over her travels and her service. “I’ve just enjoyed them all,”said Susan, and she includes the training the two received recently from MDS so they could become project directors.

Coupled with Peter’s 15 years of commercial construction experience, plus 20 years of residential construction, the couple brings a high level of expertise to the MDS project site.

“I’ve always worked around tradespeople,” said Susan, “I’ve done office work and I’ve always cooked for families.”

The bridge project is the first bridge that the Thiessens have built with MDS and, though Peter had been involved with bridge-building in his professional life, the process with MDS held unique collaboration and logistics.

One of the biggest challenges, said Peter, is knowing about the many bridges in the state waiting for repairs.

“It can be overwhelming,” he said. “I have to say to myself: one bridge at a time. We have to think that way.”

For more information about the MDS bridge building project watch a new video, featuring Peter Thiessen. Go to the MDS You Tube Channel, .

MDS is welcoming donations and volunteers for the West Virginia project. Please call (800) 241-8111 to volunteer and go the MDS website to make a donation at and designate to the fund “West Virginia Bridges 2015”.