Giving Hope to Flood Victims (June 21, 2014)

Written by Licia Corbella

Published by Calgary Herald on Saturday, June 21, 2014

Photograph by: Gavin Young, Calgary Herald

Calgary Police officer Dan Rossi talks about why he chose to take a leave from the service to help rebuild homes in Southern Alberta for Samaritan's Purse.

Flood waters didn't damage Const. Dan Rossi's home, but they did sweep his life into a new trajectory nonetheless.

For most of the past year, the 32-year-old has traded in his Calgary police uniform and badge for workboots and a Samaritan's Purse shirt.

It all happened quite organically.

On flood day one year ago, Rossi was assigned to deliver evacuation notices door to door in Calgary's devastated Mission neighbourhood and rescue those who were trapped by the rising waters of the Bow and Elbow rivers.

His police work for the first five days of the flood meant he got an intimate look at the hardest hit neighbourhoods of Calgary. But on his first day off, Rossi didn't just rest his weary body. Instead, he started volunteering for the international relief agency Samaritan's Purse, helping to muck out people's flood-ravaged homes in Bowness.

Relief work was nothing new to Rossi, it's just that he usually did it much farther afield. After getting a degree in international development from the University of Guelph, Rossi and his brother, Andrew, founded The Five with Drive Foundation in 2007, building schools in Kenya as well as providing microfinancing in rural areas of the East African country. He was also a master-corporal reconnaissance soldier with the Canadian Army for nine years, which included a tour in Ethiopia and in 2012, along with Const. Travis Juska, Rossi walked from Vancouver to Toronto and raised $150,000 for victims of crime.

About three weeks after the flood struck - still volunteering on his days off- Samaritan's Purse asked Rossi and the Calgary Police Service if he could take a leave of absence to be the base manager of the organization's flood relief on the Siksika reserve just west of Calgary.

"Siksika was really, really devastated. There were more than 150 homes that were damaged," says Rossi. "And we were able to support each of those 150 homes working six days a week for almost two months."

In total, Samaritan's Purse - which mobilized 5,000 volunteers - helped clean out 800 homes throughout the flooded areas.

Pretty soon, two months turned to four, and by September, with the blessing of the Calgary Police Service, Rossi will have taken a one-year leave from his policing duties to assume the role of program manager for Samaritan's Purse southern Alberta restoration projects.

Deputy Police Chief Trevor Daroux says Rossi's "unique set of skills, knowledge and big heart made him a perfect fit to help our neighbours, but also to build new connections and learn news skills that can be passed on to the police service. It's win-win."

Rossi agrees. "It's been very rewarding work," he says from an Samaritan's Purse trailer set up in the parking lot of First Alliance Church in Calgary's deep southeast, where volunteers gather every morning at 8 a.m. to get oriented for the day.

While some volunteers make sandwiches for their lunches from food provided by First Alliance, Rossi points to a white board to explain the plan of action on the 26 homes in High River that Samaritan's Purse is still helping to restore, as well as eight homes in Calgary. All together, Samaritan's Purse is still helping with 83 homes damaged by the floods. And now at least two of those homes have suffered more damage from flood water this past week.

On the drive down to High River, Rossi reflects on both the similarities and differences between policing and relief work. "It's very similar to policing in that people are calling for help and we have access to their lives, so it's a similar privilege to what I had as a police officer. It's just in this role, there's more counselling and working with the person to find a solution to the hurdles in their life."

Rossi says the other difference is the length of time you get to help each person in need.

"To serve people through a time of trauma and grief is an honour. Police do that all the time - but I really wanted to see the work through to completion and to be a part of their hope and joy too, to see the recovery," explains Rossi, who was married last September to Ruth, a nurse.

Dean Goll, whose century-old character home on 7th Street S.W. in High River was severely damaged in the flood, says hope and joy would be two words erased from his vocabulary were it not for Samaritan's Purse.

"They have been instrumental in getting us back into our home and helping us see the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel," says the 50-year-old career counsellor who works with high needs individuals.

"Without SP, we wouldn't be here right now," Goll adds, sweeping his arm around his home's living room with its new hardwood floors.

While the flood waters didn't actually enter the main floor, they were so high that all the floors on the main level soaked up the water and warped, buckled and started growing mould. Besides the floors, Samaritan's Purse fixed up the bathroom, which included a new tub, as well as built a supporting wall because the middle of the house sank.

For most of the past year, Goll and his partner, Doug Wallace, along with their dogs Baxter and Alex, and their cat Charlie, lived in a dingy little basement suite. They were only able to move back into their home on the May long weekend.

"It's been a very trying time, but we have met some very kind and generous people, like Dan, who have been so great to us," says Goll, who tears up as he pats Rossi's shoulder.

"From now on, our charitable donations will go to Samaritan's Purse and the Red Cross. They are the only ones who have been here to help us," explains Goll.

Just a few blocks away, Chuck Shifflett, 58, is excited because Samaritan's Purse has just brought in a huge shipment of drywall and insulation to his home, which was built in 1892 on the site of High River's first hospital.

Prior to last June's flood, the house had only ever flooded once, and that was before the Second World War, with just a few inches of water.

Last June was different. The water went all the way up to the countertops in his kitchen, and because High River residents were barred for almost one month from returning home to pump out their homes, his foundation collapsed in on itself, and "all of our furniture, including antiques, literally melted," says Shifflett, who is a renowned luthier - or maker of stringed instruments.

Despite his foundation having held up for 121 years, officials with the Alberta government's Disaster Recovery Program (DRP), have refused to help pay for the $60,000 he spent fixing it, claiming that his foundation failed because it had a pre-existing flaw.

"The way the provincial government has treated the people here creates as much trauma as the flood itself," says Shifflett.

"If I talked to employees the way they've talked to me, I'd go to jail. They imply that what happened to my home is my fault. One guy actually said I could have fixed my foundation with a few pails of cement instead of spending $60,000," says a frustrated Shifflett, who makes exquisite custom guitars, including for numerous recording artists such as George Canyon, Calum Graham and Jim Peace, among many others.

"The DRP people imply that we're standing in a bread line and insisting on French toast, but no one is asking for granite counter tops; we need basic help and they work hard to find reasons why they shouldn't help us," adds Shifflett.

But Shifflett, who is still living in a small house in Nanton with his wife and children until their house is habitable, is grateful to the thousands of Alberta volunteers who have helped him and all the other victims of the flood.

"Samaritan's Purse has helped us a lot and the Red Cross has helped a little, too. The great thing about Samaritan's Purse is they work in a team with skilled tradesmen and they work to code. In the early days, a lot of very well meaning people were very unskilled and sometimes did damage in their attempt to help, but SP's staff and volunteers do careful, skilled work and they do it with so much kindness."

Rocky Barstad simply calls the staff and volunteers with Samaritan's Purse "a godsend."

The 62-year-old artist - who lost all of his prints from a lifetime of painting in the flood, and therefore his planned retirement - says he would be desperate without the relief agency's help.

Because his 80-year-old home had never flooded before, Barstad rushed to the homes of friends on flood day to help them try to save what they could. "That's why I checked my house last," he explains with a shrug.

The flood waters rose so quickly that he needed a boat to get to his home, and his basement - which is where he stored all his art supplies and hundreds of prints of his original works - was filled with seven feet four inches of water.

Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years ago, Barstad can no longer paint like he used to.

Now, his wife, Judy, has returned to slinging burgers, fries and shakes at the Hitchin' Post - a High River institution - which is a job she first held as a 16-year-old.

"Our golden years kind of got washed down the river when my prints were ruined. Our financial security is totally shot, so we were feeling so lost and overwhelmed," says Barstad. "I really don't know what we would have done without Dan here and all of Samaritan's Purse staff and volunteers. They gave us hope for a future. I thank God for them."

Later, Rossi says he views his role as removing the mountains in people's lives.

In one case, one of the traumatized people Samaritan's Purse is helping in High River was obsessed with the impact the flood had on his dog.

"Every time we tried to deal with some really substantive issues with his home, he just wanted to talk about his dog. It was all, 'my dog this and my dog that.' It took a while, but finally I realized we need to care for his dog if we were to progress."

So, Rossi asked if Samaritan's Purse could take the pooch to a dog spa to get it groomed, which included a pedicure. "Once we did that, it was amazing, but that mountain was gone and now this man could move forward."

Rossi says a Bible verse guides his approach: "Let us not move in word and talk, but in action and in truth."

Each Samaritan's Purse work site we visited was a hive of action, and in truth, all the activity and the demeanour of the staff and volunteers was a beautiful, heartwarming sight to behold. It was truly love in action.

"I don't know what my role with the police service will be when I return," says Rossi, "but I think I'll be a better officer because of my role doing relief work this past year."

From good cop to really, really great.

For more information and to make a donation, visit the Samaritan’s Purse website.