It was a cold, snowy December morning in 2013 when my husband Jeff — a Mennonite Disaster Service staff member — MDS volunteers Gil and Rhoda Friesen and I arrived in Jamestown, Colorado. A September flood had completely washed away 17 homes and had left many more with heavy damage. Ninety-eight percent of the residents had been to be airlifted out of town.
The little town of 300 was at a standstill. Jamestown’s infrastructure had been severely damaged, and there was still no running water. The town hadn’t gotten much media attention after the flood, so the residents were alone in mourning the loss of their home as they had known it.
The mayor, Tara Schoedinger, and one of her staff members, Nina Andaloro, met us at City Hall for a walking tour. As we moved through the eerily quiet town, I noticed the haunted looks on the faces the few residents who had come back. The creek, which parallels Jamestown’s main street, was now filled with snow and ice. It seemed almost too beautiful to have caused such destruction. Schoedinger told us that the flood had changed the course of the creek — that some of the places where we were walking used to be the creek bed.
We continued along the creek, looking at homes that appeared to have been bulldozed. And in a sense, they had been bulldozed — not by machinery, but by the angry, raging James Creek. The creek had undercut some house; foundations, floors and exterior walls had been washed away, leaving them looking like oversized dollhouses with their rooms exposed. Still other homes had sand and silt stacked all the way to the roofline.
As we walked, dogs would come running off porches, barking at us. Schoedinger called each dog by name, and they quickly obeyed her command to go back to the porch and sit. We then realized that for Schoedinger, the people of Jamestown — and their dogs — were extended family, not just residents. She was one of the 2 percent of people who had refused to be airlifted out of town because one resident had been killed in his sleep when his house collapsed, and she wasn’t going anywhere until his body was recovered.
My husband explained to Schoedinger that before MDS could help Jamestown rebuild, the town needed to have funding in place, which could take as long as year to secure. She replied that Jamestown wasn’t like other towns; it wouldn’t take them a year. At the time, I had no idea if MDS would set up a project in Jamestown, but the town had moved me. I picked up a rock from one of the home sites and later put it on my desk at work as a reminder to pray daily for the town.
After many return trips, it was determined that, yes, MDS would help rebuild Jamestown. MDS began setting up a long-term site and bringing in volunteers in May of 2014. It was soon evident that, just as Schoedinger had said, Jamestown wasn’t like other towns.
In my experience, homeowners usually get their paperwork filled out and then immediately want their home rebuilt or repaired. Yet in Jamestown, people would have everything completed, but then would say, “Please build that family’s home first. They have had so many other things to deal with. They need it worse than I do. It would give them hope to go on.” As Andaloro said, “We may not all like each other, but we always look out for each other.”
It took two and a half years for Jamestown to be rebuilt. During that time, hundreds of volunteers made Jamestown their temporary home, getting to know the local artists, musicians and other folks who had chosen the little mountain town as their home. One woman that MDS helped appreciated the volunteers so much that she got to know everyone and would call us each by name when she delivered a weekly batch of baked goods. She also took off work one day to work alongside the volunteers who were building her house.
When a home is completed, MDS does a home blessing, and I’ve been pleased to take part in several blessings, including the one for the house where I found the rock I put on my desk. I was privileged to be able to present the homeowner a quilted wall hanging from Mennonite Women USA’s Housewarmer Project, and as I handed it to her, I started to point to the little pieces of the quilt. However, she stopped me before I could finish. All those little pieces, she said, would remind her of the volunteers and of the many pieces it took to rebuild her home.
I don’t know how her story will end. She has since been diagnosed with stage IV cancer, but as is usual in Jamestown, she has been surrounded with love and support.
Becky Koller is the coordinator of Mennonite Women USA’s Housewarmer Project.