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Youth restore skid row hotel

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Decrepit rooms in a single resident occupancy hotel on Winnipeg’s former skid row may not be most people’s idea of a disaster site. But that didn’t stop Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) from running a four-week project at Red Road Lodge this summer.

MDS’s mission is to bring hope to people in time of disaster by responding, rebuilding, and restoring. Lodge owner Richard Walls contacted the board to request volunteer labour to restore several rooms in the 44-unit hotel.

Red Road Lodge is part of Walls’ strategy to take the focus off poverty and create a sense of respect for community by incubating creativity and Aboriginal culture in the downtown neighbourhood. The lodge provides drug- and alcohol-free housing for persons recovering from addictions and for persons with mental disabilities. (In Aboriginal culture, red road is a common metaphor for a journey to healing.)

“The Manitoba executive felt [Red Road] was a project for which volunteers could be available and eager to help,” wrote then-chair Ben Funk, in a letter of support in 2007. Funk’s hope to “see our volunteers get involved helping to provide housing and hope to people in need” was realized by the July 2009 project.

Sixty-seven short-term and seven project-length MDS volunteers completely gutted and began renovation of eight rooms at the former Occidental Hotel.

Youth groups from Altona (Man.) Sommerfeld Mennonite Church; Erisman Mennonite Church, Manheim, Penn.; Osler (Sask.) Mennonite Church, Blumenort (Man.) Mennonite Church; and Coaldale (Alta.) Mennonite Church worked one week under project director Michael Enns and professional contractor John Martens, from Grunthal, Man., who spent holiday time as project foreman.

In addition to working full days, with strictly timed breaks, the volunteers enjoyed several evening outings to build a team ethic, and heard speakers on homelessness, residential schools, and Aboriginal-government relations.

Labour regulations barred youth under 16 from the construction site, so younger volunteers turned a dump heap behind the building into a garden for relaxation and horticulture therapy, and built birdhouses for revenue development for the lodge.

Each Friday afternoon, the volunteers hosted a barbecue for the current 30-plus Red Road residents and the wider community. Attendance grew each week. The volunteers “talked to the residents liked they’d known them all their lives,” said Beverly Roberts, public relations and donor development coordinator.

They worked “like troopers,” Roberts said, and had “a wonderful sense of camaraderie and a harmonious energy.”

—Karla Braun

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