When Peter Thiessen retired from a career in construction, he couldn’t imagine spending his time lounging around a pool in Palm Springs.
But working in the mud and muck of flood-damaged, rural West Virginia, about 2,100 miles from his home in Okotoks, Canada? He signed right up.
Peter and his wife, Susan, a retired dental assistant, are volunteer team leaders for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), a WV VOAD member agency and a major contributor and collaborator for the WV VOAD Bridge Project.
When Peter contacted MDS back in 2015 looking for volunteer opportunities, he heard the group might be attempting to rebuild some of West Virginia’s flood-damaged private bridges.
“I was keenly interested,” said Peter, who had previously done relief work in rural Kentucky for three years in the 1990s.
“I knew the region, I knew what the mountains meant and I said, ‘That’s the place for us.’”
With his background in commercial and residential construction, Peter and Susan traveled to Lincoln County in 2015 to help MDS determine, “Can we do bridges with volunteers? Can it be done?”
The faith-based group has for decades done relief work in many locations around the country, but most of those programs involve rebuilding houses.
“We did a pilot project, and it worked,” Peter said. “We had no idea where this story would go two and a half years ago. We innocently said we’d commit to five bridges, and here we are.”
The WV VOAD Bridge Project has completed 50 bridges now, and the Thiessens have helped with at least 47 of them.
Each year, the Thiessens devote four to six months of their lives — several months in the spring and several months in the fall — to spearheading bridge construction in West Virginia.
The couple, married for more than 40 years, have specific roles.
“She’s the administrator and I do the field work,” Peter said. “We are a team.”
Each Sunday evening, Peter gets a new team of volunteers, usually about 10.
“MDS knows my needs for bridge-building, the kind of people I need,” he said. “They don’t have to be skilled. I give them leadership and they come ready to work.”
Volunteers come scattered from states all over the country and sometimes Canada. Often the Thiessens and a crew can construct a bridge in as little as a week.
In February, the Thiessens led volunteer teams to build two new bridges in the Alkol area of Lincoln County, where homes and bridges were destroyed and damaged during flooding in 2015. They are now tackling bridge projects in Clay County and the Clendenin area of Kanawha County, all which sustained major damage in the June 2016 flood.
They spent the first couple of weeks of this year’s visit sleeping at the Duval Volunteer Fire Department in Griffithsville, Lincoln County, before setting up a base at the Stillwaters Ministries Church in Clendenin. That space, which was severely damaged in the 2016 flood, was specifically renovated to house volunteers.
“It is always a bit of a challenge to go into a disaster, to these areas that have been flooded, and find places to stay,” Peter said.
It’s the coordination of WV VOAD and its member agencies to secure funding, volunteers and materials that makes the Bridge Project work.
“This is what is unique about these kinds of things,” Peter said. “We drop into an area and we have to learn to work as a team. They don’t know our ways; we don’t know their ways. It becomes a juggling act of learning how to harmoniously work together—that’s typical of a disaster. It’s a setting under stress. We come in and put the team together.
“Now, two and a half years later, we look back and say, ‘Those were interesting beginnings.’ But we are working well together.”