What a difference a year makes

MDS, Salvation Army rebuild woman’s home destroyed just before last Christmas

December 15, 2010 | Feature | Number 24
By Evelyn Rempel Petkau | Manitoba Correspondent

Christmas will be different this year for Winnipeg’s Kathy Okolita.

She stands in her newly renovated home surrounded by 18 people who have come to offer a house blessing. She can’t seem to say “thank you” enough as she offers fried chicken and potato salad to her guests.

There is standing room only in this scarcely 47-square-metre “war house,” but Okolita, single and in her 40s, makes no apologies for the lack of space or chairs. “I love living here,” she says. “It makes me feel I’m at the beach.”

Last December, though, her greatest fear was that she wouldn’t have a place to live. Just a few days before Christmas her house caught fire. Okolita, who is receiving disability benefits and lives with constant pain, was home making dinner when she says she heard “zapping and sizzling” sounds coming from the electrical box in her kitchen, quickly followed by smoke and flames.

“I called 911 and the fire trucks arrived within five minutes,” she says. “I was devastated as I asked the firemen to please be careful and try not to cause too much damage while saving my house. I told them I had no insurance.”

“After everything was done and the fire was out, that’s when the load of this disaster really hit me,” she says. “Everything was torn apart. Cabinets were torn off the walls, and my stuff was crushed and tossed everywhere. In the blink of an eye my life was turned upside down. I was in a panic.”

With nowhere to turn and without any money, Okolita was fearful she would end up on the street. Paging through a resource book, she came across Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). “All these wonderful Christian men came out to help with the job,” she says, adding, “I would have been out on the street if it wasn’t for MDS and my friends offering their home for me to stay in.”

“We had a terrific response” of volunteer support, says Dan Klassen, chair of MDS Manitoba. Vice-chair Rob Neufeld led the dozen or so volunteers who put in approximately 250 hours. “The trades people all volunteered and there were no labour costs,” Klassen notes.

Built nearly a century ago, the little house was insulated with wood shavings.

“Conditions were such that the whole house should have burned down,” Klassen says. “I guess God didn’t want it to burn.”

The Salvation Army partnered with MDS on the Okolita project, paying for all of the materials valued at $4,600. Don Timmerman, representing the Salvation Army at the house blessing, explains, “This is the first time we’ve had a Mennonite connection like this. We are really amazed at the work you do and the impact you have in the city.”

As cold weather sets in this winter and Christmas again approaches, Okolita says she notices her house is warmer than before. “It’s nice and cozy,” she enthuses. “It makes me feel that it’s from God. I’ve learned that there is a God who cares.”

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