News Local

Newton couple help rebuild after tornado

By Robin Dudgeon, Portage Daily Graphic

Jake and Verna Martens have been volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) RV program for the past seven years helping families in the United States to rebuild their homes after natural disasters; 2012 found the Newton, Manitoba couple in Cordova, Alabama.

Since October the Martens have been in Cordova renovating the homes of two elderly men, which were destroyed by a tornado; Jake and Verna will be returning to Portage la Prairie on Apr. 25, 2012.

But this type of work is not something that is new to the Martens - they spent 18 years in Belize doing mission work, first with Gospel Missionary Union for two years and then with Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church of Canada.

During their seven seasons as MDS RVers, they've spent from five to seven months annually at sites in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. They've also sandwiched in "regular" MDS stints, five to six summertime weeks apiece, from Newfoundland and American Samoa, and Alaska.

The Martens did try out a relaxation retirement. When Jake turned 70, the couple left their Manitoba farm and drove their RV to a Texas town on the Mexican border.

"We played shuffleboard for two weeks and said, "This is not for us,'" Jake recalls.

The most dramatic healing the Martens witnessed happened last year on the Gulf Coast, involving a couple who had lost home, health-and almost their lives-in Hurricane Katrina and during the five years of basic survival afterwards. When the wife showed Verna the damaged bedroom ceiling, she pointed to two holes not caused by the storm. They were bullet holes. The woman said she had walked into the room to find her husband sitting on a stool, a gun to his temple. When she knocked the gun from his hand, it discharged twice into the ceiling.

But not all victims' stories are this intense. "It takes a while for people to come out of their depression," said Verna Martens.

"At first some people don't want to look you in the eyes; they're ashamed of their situation or are down," Jake adds.

The couple agrees that staying around long enough to help individuals heal from a disaster and to witness the healing is the best part of the MDS RV program.

About the man who had wanted to commit suicide after losing his home? By the time the MDS RVers finished reconstructing the couple's house last year, both he and his wife were well on the road to recovering from their five-year ordeal.

For the Martens, a transformational moment came with the ceiling repair. "When we were able to fill those bullet holes-" Tears come to Verna's eyes, and she stops for a moment to collect herself. "It was an object lesson that repairing a home transfers to hearts and lives."

See this story in Thursday's edition of the Central Plains Herald-Leader

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