Samaritan’s Purse — a Christian relief organization that assists people affected by natural disasters such as fire, floods, and earthquakes — has returned to the area, to help and support anyone whose homes have been lost in this season’s wildfires.
A convoy of 12 vehicles with volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, accompanied by chaplains with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, and equipment arrived in Cache Creek from Calgary on Aug. 4, and are based out of Cross Roads Pentecostal Church on Stage Road. The group is no stranger to the area: they were here in 2015, to assist Cache Creek residents affected by the flood there in May 2015, and returned in 2017 to help residents of Boston Flats and the Ashcroft Indian Band who lost their homes in the Elephant Hill wildfire.
Andy Northup, the program manager for Samaritan’s Purse in Cache Creek, says that the team will be here for as long as they’re needed, and will go wherever the need is. “We’re based in Cache Creek, but will travel quite a ways. We can also move ourselves. It depends on where the calls come in from.”
Samaritan’s Purse is usually invited into an area by the local Emergency Operations Centre. “Because of our work here in 2017, they were very welcoming to us coming back,” says Northup, adding that the organization’s main connection with evacuees is typically through the EOC or the community.
“Local churches are also very important to us. Those are our backbones and where we set up. They’re lighthouse churches, where we base ourselves, but we work with volunteers who are not churchgoing people. We work for and with everyone.”
He adds that once they have worked in an area, they have a lot of contacts. “That opens a lot of doors. We work hard, and work on being invited, then let people know we’re coming in.”
The service Samaritan’s Purse offers — looking through a property for items that might have survived — is not for everyone, Northup says. “Only a certain percentage will say yes to this, and that’s understandable. It’s very important for us to work with the homeowner. If we get somewhere and they say ‘I’ve changed my mind’ we would just sit with them. It’s important to be in step with them.
“We find, with our work, that it’s word of mouth. Once we go in and do something people want us to go.”
The team members have various backgrounds: some are retired, while others take time away from work to volunteer where they are needed. They also come from all over Canada: Northup, who has been with Samaritan’s Purse on and off since 2008, lives in Nova Scotia, and first volunteered for the organization after a flood in New Brunswick.
Members are trained to meet all safety standards, and are able to work with local volunteers who want to assist in recovery efforts. Northup says that community volunteers are usually adults, although 16- and 17-year-olds can take part as long as they are with an adult.
“We ask questions, and typically do a safety orientation with volunteers. With fire it’s specific training for working with ash, because there are a lot of cancer-causing contaminants. We don’t like to turn people away; if they want to help and feel there’s a place for them, we’ll try to work with them. They might not be able to go into a basement, but they can work in what we call the cold zone.”
Training takes a couple of hours, and Northup says their preference is for getting a group of people so they can be trained together.
“In a normal situation, a volunteer comes in for 7:30 a.m. and does an orientation, and we provide them with a packed lunch. They’re introduced to the team lead they’ll be under that day, then travel to the site. We usually leave around 4 p.m. to return to base.”
When Samaritan’s Purse is contacted by homeowners, team members will meet them at their property and do an assessment. “We walk around looking for dangers, like a wall that’s leaning or a chimney that’s still standing. Safety is a big deal for us. We don’t want people injured. The homeowners sign off on a work order to show they’ve agreed that that’s what we’ll do.”
Homeowners do not usually take part in the search. “We’ll have a shade tent for the family, with chairs and water, and the team will be in another shade tent. They go in and work in the hot zone, and if they find anything they come back out and clean it up so it can be handed to the homeowner.
“We find it’s a very emotional time for the family. When they’re with us, it can be the first time they’re seeing their home after it’s burned down.”
Homeowners are asked what area they want searched, or if they want the volunteers to look for something specific. “We can’t do a whole house. Usually someone says ‘Hey, I’m looking for this,’ but sometimes we just bring things out that haven’t broken.
“We found an old gentleman’s war medals in the ashes. That was incredibly touching, and important to him. We found a lady’s grandmother’s diamond earrings, and that meant a lot to her. It’s surprising, the things you find, like a piece of pottery that didn’t break because a wall fell on it and protected it.”
Northup says that without volunteers, “We would just have a yard full of equipment here. It’s hard to go it alone. People want to help but don’t know how to, and we can help with that.” Locals who would like to assist can call 1-833-738-7743, which will connect them with an office in Cache Creek; they can also visit https://www.samaritanspurse.ca/health-questionnaire/ for more information or to volunteer. Homeowners who would like help from Samaritan’s Purse can also call that number.
“I’m always blown away by Samaritan’s Purse,” says Northup. “They just come and want to help people. I’m honoured and humbled to stand beside a lot of these folks.
“They’re an amazing group, and you meet such beautiful people.”
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