The framing phase begins on a home in White Swan, Wash.

Rebuilding White Swan | By Katherine E. Bell | Photo by The Revs. Derel Olson and L. George Abrams

The morning was cold and it was unusually windy for winter in White Swan. The people of White Swan are used to the wind that blows from the West, which is sometimes quite violent, but today was different. More than the usual leaves and tumbleweeds were blowing about. The roof shingles were slapping and then taking wing like a Frisbee bent to make the goal. Large pieces of metal also took flight, offering more debris for the unwary. The trees were morphed into arm breaking positions and some succumbed to the unyielding pressure. Randy was up early that morning and had just finished eating his oatmeal with three to four heaping spoons of brown sugar, a few almonds for protein, a handful of bran for good digestion and a good cup of raisins. A cup of black coffee, with another two teaspoons of sugar and some milk rounded out the meal. As Randy was finishing his first cup, he noticed the fierceness of the wind. The smaller limbs in his maple out front were snapping off with each strong gust. This got his attention, so he surveyed the scene. Everything seemed okay from the North and South, but wow, from the West he could see an orange glow and realized that the smoke he smelled was not the toast he had burnt earlier. He got ready, just in case, put on his hat, which was always an important part of his attire. He slipped in, tied off his Nikes, and threw his jacket on. He surveyed the scene again out his back window and panicked as he saw a wall of flames behind his neighbor’s house. Without thinking, he was out of the house, cleared the bridge (a 12-foot leap), and landed hard on the other side of the creek. It felt like two more steps until he was at her front door. He knocked and yelled…no response, tried the knob…nothing. Finally, he kicked the door until it shattered off the hinges.

On February 12, 2011 a fire and windstorm, with 80 to 100 mph gusts, spread across the west end of the Yakama Reservation. Homes were destroyed and many were forced to take shelter into lodging provided by families, friends and hotels. Almost a year later, many are now safe in their new or repaired homes due to the work completed the summer of 2011. We hope that more work can be accomplished in the summer of 2012.
When working with volunteers from across the country, the relationship between volunteers and the community is extremely important. Each group experiences this event differently based on their relationship, culture, and understanding of the community. Throughout the summer, volunteers went out each day re-roofing and repairing wind and fire damaged homes. During their work, they were able to talk with the homeowners, ask questions of the community liaison that was leading the work groups, and experience a way of life different from their own. From middle school and high school students to parents and grandparents, volunteers were able to learn how history relates to current times and how social justice issues influence the community.

Since many have never been on a reservation, stereotypes were present before volunteers arrived in White Swan. As the community liaison, I led the work groups every day ready for conversation about the people of the reservation. Questions would range from whether or not the people here had computers or cell phones to historical references and important historical dates. Overall, White Swan was seen as a third world country. However, through conversation, systems and stereotypes were questioned, which is an important step for those working closely with the Native American and Latino cultures that are predominant in White Swan.

By the end of the summer, volunteers and community members participated in repairing forty-one homes and building Randy H’s home. The build was launched towards the end of the summer as a Blitz Build. Both organized groups and individuals seeking to help the White Swan community participated at different levels on the building project. Folks from New York and Florida assisted in building and putting up the framework and siding of the home while folks from Texas, California, and Washington State shingled the roof, insulated the walls, and painted the house. Many folks from other states helped with the process and, even those who were not able to join in the building, donated food for the volunteers during the three weeks of the Blitz Build.


I believe that being a community liaison during the volunteer programs with rebuilding the community of White Swan was beneficial. The liaison was able to counsel on having a safe zone where questions could be asked without hurting feelings or crossing cultural boundaries. With this interaction, both the community and the volunteers were able to have a great experience. Since damage is still apparent in White Swan with not only the houses that need to be repaired, but also with the community members that have been displaced, more work will need to be done next summer. I plan to continue the liaison work between volunteers and community members because of the social importance to the community, and the need to assist people in hard times.

Please note this article is adapted from a report for the Peace with Justice Grant provided by Katherine E. Bell, CWU Student and White Swan Community Liaison. Peace with Justice Sunday was June 3, but churches can celebrate this any time.

Download the full issue of Channels 55, August 2012 here.


  1. Labor Day weekend, Friday morning until Monday noon, gives everyone the chance to join in rebuilding one more home destroyed in the February 2011 fire. Thanks to UMCOR, congregational, and individual giving, the home of a single father and his daughter (in the photo) will be ready for siding and roofing. Join other volunteers in making a difference in the life of one more White Swan family. If you are interested in volunteering over Labor Day weekend (roofing, siding, painting, and meal preparation) please contact David at or 509-969-2093.

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