Volunteers build a Christmas present

Mennonite Disaster Assistance is replacing driveway bridges for WV homeowners


Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers put the finishing touches on a bridge built for Joshua Plumley (foreground), 80, of Griffithsville, WV. Plumley’s bridge was washed out by a flood in 2015.
Credit: Paul Hunt

As two 28-foot solid steel beams are lowered into place on the banks of Straight Fork, Ruth Plumley considers her new driveway bridge a Christmas gift. “And we couldn’t have a better one,” she said, recalling the repeating floods in West Virginia that have swept away the bridge leading from the road to the Plumley’s house.

This year, she said, “floods took the bridge out twice in April. We built it back the first time, but it was never as good as this,” she said, watching volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) lift the sturdy pilings into place with a small crane.

Floods are a way of life in communities southwest of Charleston, WV, where creeks spill over their banks, driving mud into homes and destroying the small bridges that serve as driveways for many residents.

In the many months since their driveway bridge has been out, when Straight Fork starts to rise, the Plumleys have no way to leave their house. “We can cross with our truck but when the creek gets too high, we can’t get out,” said Ruth Plumley.

The Plumleys grew up here together near Griffithsville, an unincorporated town nestled in the West Virginia mountains of Lincoln County south of Charleston. Now in their 80s, they were married just 14 years ago. Ruth Plumley still remembers one evening when she was 14 years old, and Joshua walked her home from church.

But they each married another person and moved away from their hometown. Ruth’s first husband died in the 1970s. Joshua lived in Ohio for 36 years, then his first wife died. He moved back to Griffithsville. “This was always my home place,” he said. “I moved back here but I didn’t know Ruth was here until my nephew came and told me.”

Joshua leans back against his chair and smiles: “The way I look at it, we just run up on each other after 50 years.”

After the April floods struck, Joshua found himself in the Duval Volunteer Fire Department, where residents were gathering to fill out applications for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That’s where he found out about MDS.

In the past week, he has gotten to know MDS even better, working alongside volunteer teams.

“Pennsylvania, Canada, Virginia, Ohio — volunteers have come from everywhere,” he said.

Steve Hudson, a volunteer firefighter, said the fire station has become a community gathering place, not only in the wake of disaster but during “normal” times as well. He chats with MDS volunteers who cook and eat their meals at their station, then sleep there overnight until they travel to the work site the next morning. “This building has gotten a lot of exercise,” Hudson said, from serving as a temporary FEMA site, to housing volunteers, to hosting baby showers and birthday parties. “We call this our training room but everybody else calls it the community building,” he said.

Hudson is proud to have the fire department building serve as a place that draws people together: “Sometimes bad things happen for a good reason,” he said. “Mighta even been a good thing we had that flood.”

Peter Thiessen, MDS project director of Okotoks, Alberta, said there is a long list of residents who need driveway bridges, and it’s growing so fast he doesn’t want to offer a specific number. “It’s an evolving story,” he said, adding that his relationships within the community have been a highlight of this project.

Executive Director of MDS, Kevin King, says that MDS is committed to raising funds to construct the first five bridges of a goal of 20 in Lincoln County. This is part of a larger pilot program of building private access bridges with West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (WV-VOAD).

In West Virginia Thiessen stands with the Plumley’s two nephews and, together, they watch volunteers put the last touches on the bridge. “I remember we were ready to pour the footers, and these two showed up, and they went to the concrete store and paid the bill,” said Thiessen.

RD Stowers, Ruth’s nephew, jokes about his “sneaky” act of kindness, then grows serious: “They deserve this bridge,” he said. “They’ve put up with a bad bridge for a long time.”

Thiessen had a goal of completing this bridge — the first on the list — by Christmas. “I was so determined to finish,” he said.

Now family members can more easily visit, added both the Plumleys. “We love it here,” said Joshua. “Even if people don’t come to visit, we like to sit here together, watch some TV.”

Ruth arrives from the kitchen, without knowing what her husband has just said, and adds, “we like to just be here, maybe watch some TV. You need somebody when you’re old. We need each other. I really do remember when he walked me home. And then 50 years, and here we are.”

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