“When you first drive through High River, it looks likes any ordinary small town. However, the High River SERVE trip showed me how truly devastating the flood of June 2013 was. Hauling topsoil in flimsy wheelbarrows, painting battered fences, and laying replacement paving stones were what I signed up for when our youth leaders mentioned the trip. But the unexpected parts were the most rewarding.”
That’s what Shelby Forster, 18, said after spending a week in High River, an Alberta town of 13,000 people devastated by flooding a year ago. More than 90 percent of the town’s homes were affected; many were rendered unlivable.
Forster, of Iron Springs, was one of 49 teens and youth leaders from 10 Christian Reformed churches throughout Alberta who gathered in High River on July 12 for a week-long SERVE project.
One of the unexpected parts for Forster was the power of the stories shared. “Meeting countless locals who loved to tell their stories and [hearing] how hard they have fought to overcome the disaster was one of my favorite parts of the trip.”
Although the flood waters receded over a year ago, much cleanup and rebuilding still needs to be done. The town’s infrastructure and the homes and livelihood of thousands of people suffered severe damage. The whole town was evacuated for 10 days. So-called “red” houses with “Unsafe” and “Unfit for Human Habitation” signs on their front doors sit forlornly beside vacant lots where houses once stood. High River CRC’s most senior couple have not even been able to look inside their home since the day they left. Many grieve for things washed away or ruined. Most downtown businesses remain dark and boarded up. Some have reopened in what is called a “Sprung Structure Strip Mall,” tensioned membrane buildings resembling a row of tents.
“We asked Youth Unlimited to join us,” said Ron deVries, Classis Alberta North’s youth ministry consultant, “and they willingly became a part of the story. They were willing to be flexible so that we could make this event work.” Samaritan’s Purse provided the majority of work sites, a mobile trailer with six shower stalls, and even a tab at a local grocery store among other things. Meals and worship took place at High River CRC; Spitzee Elementary School across the street provided classroom floors for sleeping.
Shalee Giesbrecht, 14, was one of the youngest on the SERVE team. “I felt my connection with God growing closer as I served him that week,” she said. “I loved how everyone was so grateful that we were working there. They gave us Popsicles, Freezies, cake, cookies, iced tea. They would tell us their story, and we would listen with open minds and open hearts. After we finished a house, seeing what we accomplished, I felt like I had really done God’s work. It was an amazing feeling to be done and know that you helped a life.”
Rev. Rick Abma was the main speaker during the evening praise and worship services. Referring to the altruism and community spirit created when hundreds of volunteers helped after the flooding last year, Abma challenged those present to seek to be community at all times, especially in their own neighborhoods. “We should not wait for a flood, a death, or a disaster to see that kind of coming together,” he said.
As the SERVE team worked at 30 sites during the week, they heard many heartfelt thanks from locals. Even the mayor stopped by to thank them. “You’re the hands and feet of Jesus,” exclaimed one woman whose house sits across the street from High River CRC and whose basement was flooded to the rafters. Another told how, after three heart attacks, she would certainly not have been able to do the “back-breaking” work required to redo her stone sidewalk or remove and haul away all the river silt from her backyard, a necessary step before replacing the yard with new topsoil and grass seed.
“As we drove around town in the beautiful sunny weather, [we noticed] the lack of people outside, in their yards and in their communities. It really seemed like a ghost town at times,” said youth leader Ellen Lyzenga. “Having this group of kids there for a week helped to bring some of the life back.”
Many SERVE participants thought they should be the ones to say thank you. Miranda Mulder, a 17-year-old member of High River CRC said, “When all was said and done, the kids were the ones to say, ‘Thank you for letting us be a part of the healing process.’”
“Through every fiber of this event, God led the way,” concluded Ron deVries. “From the moments we decided to go ahead, he was planning the route. We just followed. Through prayer, story, and lives, his glory was revealed. To God be all the glory.”