Supplied photo

Photo of Mary and Isaak Friesen with their children Harry and Elsa, taken in Russia (present-day Ukraine) in 1943.

Since receiving assistance as a child in Germany after fleeing Russia, Elsa Dick has spent most of her life giving back in her own ways.

For nearly 45 years, she’s dedicated many hours to her local Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Thrift shop in Brandon, Manitoba and has been a regular supporter of MCC.

Elsa remembers being an orphan in Germany as a young girl. She and her brother Harry relied on many friends and community members for supports as they sought help as refugees to come to Canada.

Photo of Elsa with her brother Harry taken in Canada in 2001.Photo provided by Elsa Dick

As refugees they were constantly on the move. Through this instability, Elsa remembers receiving Christmas parcels, meals and shelter—all provided by MCC.

“The building where we lived had been a large dance hall before the war. About two hundred Mennonites were calling it home. Bunk beds and blankets made up cubicles for each family,” Elsa said, describing the last shelter where she and Harry stayed before arriving in Canada.

She recalls the meals and parcels well. They were often served porridge for breakfast, noodle soup for lunch and dinner varied. She even remembers the content from the Christmas parcels assembled by families in North America that were shipped to refugees like her.

“Each bundle was wrapped in a towel, fastened with safety pins and they contained all sorts of goodies,” she said. In her towel bundle she received a pair of socks, her first pack of Juicy Fruit chewing gum and “the Dionne Quintuplets” —the name she gave to her paper dolls.

On August 20, 1948, Elsa and Harry arrived in Canada by boat and after two days travelling by train, were reconnected with their grandparents and extended family in Windsor, Ontario.

Photo of Elsa Dick's childhood passport.Photo provided by Elsa Dick.

Elsa began volunteering at the Brandon MCC Thrift Shop in the 1970s. She volunteered along with many others from her church and was comforted by the company while her kids spent the days in school.

“I thought I owed it to them,” Elsa shared. She saw volunteering as a way of giving back after all that MCC did to support her as a child. 

Shop manager Shelly Burrows says Elsa’s an advocate for people in need because of her history. “It’s given her great empathy for those who are struggling.”

“Elsa is a great reference point for a new volunteer. She’s a great person to talk about MCC’s history and why she does this work,” said Burrows, noting that Elsa has helped foster a sense of community with new volunteers by helping them have a deeper appreciation of MCC Thrift’s work.

Brandon MCC Thrift Shop “is a place where we can foster the community towards doing a good project instead of just going to work – [volunteers] revel in that, and they get excited in that when they see the good works that happen. And they pray for each other all the time—they’re real community,” said Burrows.

Brandon MCC Thrift Shop “is a place where we can foster the community towards doing a good project instead of just going to work – [volunteers] revel in that, and they get excited in that when they see the good works that happen. And they pray for each other all the time—they’re real community,” said Burrows.

That community has meant laughter is easy to come by while volunteering.

“Oh, we have lots of fun,” said Elsa, recalling the moments of laughter she and her fellow volunteers shared. Whether it was from the unique and sometimes funny items that came through the store, or events like the mock wedding and banquet they held. The thrift shop was not just a store, but a community to Elsa.

Burrows says when she hears volunteers laughing and getting along that it reminders her of the idea of a “small village” where they’re all working together toward a common goal.

“The common goal here, as Elsa will tell you, is to make sure that MCC can continue its good work around the world and here in Manitoba.”

Through the MCC Thrift shop, Elsa has been able to connect deeply to others who share a similar background with her. “Oh yeah, we were all friends, especially the ones who also came from Germany.”

With public health orders in place, Elsa hasn’t been able to volunteer as frequently at the Brandon MCC Thrift Shop, but is eager to return when she can.

Visit https://thrift.mcc.org/mcc-thrift-shop-locations to find out about hours of operation for an MCC Thrift shop near you.

Written with files from staff writer Allison Zacharias.