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Why do I serve with Mennonite Disaster Service?

August 11, 2021

Steven Bell, center, fighting a fire.

By Steven Bell

Many times, people ask me why I volunteer with MDS. I explain by sharing one of two stories.

My family was living on the island of Guam in 1962. On the night of November 11, Typhoon Karen struck the island with winds of 175 miles per hour. I was six years old and will never forget the experience.

My grandparent’s house was wrecked. Eight of us spent the night in a small bedroom closet waiting out the storm. The next day, my brother went to the hospital with a major head injury from being hit with debris in the house, and our car was upside down in the front yard. The recovery effort took months for us, and years for other families on the island.

Fast forward to 1977. Santa Barbara, California, Sycamore Fire. I worked as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service. I watched in frustration as 239 homes burned while we could only save a handful. Our hardest decisions hinged on which houses had a chance to be saved and which we had to let go. The high winds and flames gave us only minutes to decide.

With each house we let go, we knew lives would be forever changed.

I fought forest fires for ten years and spent another year with a city fire department. Each year brought the same kinds of decisions. Each year brought the same kinds of heartache. While I took satisfaction in knowing we saved many homes, it was the ones we couldn’t save that I don’t forget.

I didn’t know back then that God had long ago prepared a way to help deal with the desire of my heart to help families impacted by fires.

In 2014, a friend of mine shared his experience of volunteering with MDS in Calaveras County after the fires there. I liked what I heard. Typhoon Sudelore struck Saipan in 2015. Typhoon Yutu followed in 2018. I saw this as a chance to pay forward the help my family received after Typhoon Karen.

Since I retired in 2017, I have volunteered three times for rebuilding efforts on Saipan and helped many families get out of tents and back into their homes.

But it was a series of large fires in Northern California that gave me the opportunity to satisfy my desire to help families devastated by fire. My wife and I had the opportunity to work in Lake County for one month to help rebuild homes. I helped set up the MDS camp in Paradise, California. The project is now in full swing this summer.

God willing, the work I have been doing with the Creek Fire Collaborative will give MDS and myself a chance to help rebuild homes in Fresno and Madera areas where I was stationed in as a forest firefighter for ten years.

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps. 37:4 NASB)

Steven Bell lives in Fresno, California. He serves as vice chair of the MDS California Unit, and has served as a leadership volunteer with MDS since 2018.