Giving people a hand up (January 24, 2013)

Written by Kevin Rushworth

Published by The Pincher Creek Echo on Thursday, January 24, 2013

For the past six years, Claus and Wanda Burchert have dedicated much of their lives to international disaster recovery in countries around the world. Living life on standby, the retired couple never knows what adventure lies around the corner.

Southern United States. Japan. Mexico. Peru. Nicaragua. El Salvador. Tanzania. Kenya. Rwanda. Democratic Republic of Congo. With more tales to come, this couple has seen the world and met its people, learning about the human spirit amidst calamity.

Together, they have traveled the world and provided disaster recovery and humanitarian aid through Samaritan's Purse.

"I was getting to the end of my police career and I wanted to channel into something different in retirement," said Claus, a former Calgary and Coaldale police officer and detective.

While they call Blairmore home, Claus and his wife are involved in Pincher Creek Search and Rescue and are  both licensed Red Cross first aid instructors.

A recent search and rescue search managers course helped Claus further understand incident management,  crucial to his disaster recovery work.

Together, the couple's first trip was to upstate New York, where Claus worked as the project manager and Wanda was the admin co-ordinator during flood recovery.

Claus, also a ski patroller at Castle Mountain Resort, worked in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina on a six man team that helped mud out and get people back to living in their own homes.

Thirty-five years of emergency response work-firefighter, ambulance work as well as search and rescue-has been crucial in his new pursuit.

"I feel it's a lifestyle that I thrive in and that I have something to offer," Claus explained, noting he enjoys traveling with his wife.

Wanda has been traveling with Claus on all their adventures, with a few exceptions. She worked on Samaritan's Purse's Turn on the Tap water project and installed water filters in homes.

"We're not motivated by money and there's a little bit of adventure because we've been able to see other countries and other cultures," she said.

Next, the couple traveled to the ravaged Sendai region of Japan to help in the recovery efforts after the earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Claus acted as the projects' interim country director for three and a half months while Wanda was the finance co-ordinator.

"We put ourselves on standby and whenever they need someone to go out, if we fill the criteria for that disaster, we load up and go," he noted.

Having to work in a calamitous disaster zone takes its toll on the recovery workers and Claus said there was kilometer after kilometer of devastation.

"We're not there to give them a hand out, we want to get them moving again and get them involved in their own recovery," he said.

Though most of her work was behind the desk, Wanda said field tours were crucial to lessen the disconnect felt in the office.

"When we were in Japan, it was overwhelming because of the huge amount of area, the lives lost and the lives that were impacted," she said.

Since that time, the couple has been in numerous countries in south and central America, as well as Africa.

"After the first few (trips), you really come to realize that we live in such a bubble in North America," Claus explained.

Working on a flood relief project in southern Mexico meant sleeping in mosquito tents on mattresses spread out on the concrete-not romantic, he noted.

He said it's very hard to explain to people a frame of reference of what they do on their disaster recovery trips.

"There's lots of people who said I'd love to be able to do what you're doing, but it takes a bit of a step out," Wanda explained.

Before traveling to Africa as a couple, Wanda and Claus went to Rwanda with the Everts family who owns Grumpy's Greenhouse in Beaver Mines.

Traveling to Tanzania to review a malaria project for Samaritan's Purse was nothing short of an experience for the couple, quickly becoming season travelers.

"You look at what you thought were needs before and they're really wants," Claus said. "You don't need a lot to really survive."

Without electricity in their village, Wanda remembers the blackness her world was launched into when the sun slipped below the horizon.

On a disaster response trip to Kenya, Claus remembers living close to three refugee camps that housed 450,000 people.

"With a single flush of the toilet, I sent more water down the drain than most of those families would use in a day," he recalled.

On their trip to Ethiopia, Claus and Wanda had vastly different roles. While he was security officer for the whole country through the organization, Wanda worked with disadvantaged women.

Many of the women were prostitutes and were selling their bodies, Wanda said. The organization, Ellilta Women at Risk gave them health care and basic training.

"It is humbling to be able to help someone get a new start, whether it's through disaster relief or this other project," she said.

In March 2012, an explosion at a military base in Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo killed countless people and displaced 15,000 people who once lived around the base.

A relief agency, Friends of the Bible-made up of NGOs, missionaries amongst others-was frustrated in their inability to help in a difficult time.

Through Samaritan's Purse, Wanda and Claus were asked to travel to the Congo and spent three weeks interviewing aid relief agencies and government officials.

They developed a disaster relief plan and facilitated good discussion amongst many officials. When a cargo plane crashed in Brazzaville, agencies were better able to deal with the disaster.

Wanda explained that they purposely live their lives a little simpler at home so much of their money can be spent on traveling abroad.

"We've put it forward that wherever God calls us to go, we're going," Claus said. "I think you can scare yourself out of doing anything if you think about it long enough."

Though not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, Wanda said they always make sure they're available for the next adventure right around the corner.

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