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The Refuge will rebuild: Following fire, cleanup and reconstruction is planned at Christian outreach center

A cleaning van waits outside The Refuge on Tuesday. Cleanup efforts have been stalled as the insurance company inventories everything left inside the building. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)1 / 5
The kitchen and coffee shop area of The Refuge was completely destroyed in the fire. Mel Manning, who started The Refuge with his wife, Shirley, said he was "heartbroken" when he first saw the damage. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)2 / 5
The Refuge is temporarily closed down following a September 22 fire. A complete rebuild is in the works. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)3 / 5
Figurines and pictures of religious figures lay in the rubble of The Refuge's kitchen and coffee shop area after a fire there about two weeks ago. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)4 / 5
A yellow fabric lily stands out amongst the ashes on the floor of The Refuge. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)5 / 5

It's been more than two weeks since a fire ripped apart The Refuge, and cleanup efforts are still stalled as the insurance company takes a complete inventory of everything inside the building.

Mel Manning, who opened The Refuge with his wife, Shirley, in 2006, said it'll probably be another two weeks before that painstaking process is complete. After that, he said, "the real work begins."

The Mannings plan to completely rebuild, and want to get things back up and running as usual again, as soon as possible.

"It'll be mostly the same as it was before," he said. "But we're going to have to pretty much gut the building... I think it'll take about three months to be done."

They're not exactly sure yet how extensive the damage is, but Manning said it's likely they'll be reconstructing the whole facility, from floor to ceiling. The fire started in the coffee shop and kitchen area on the north side of the building, and that's where the heaviest damage occurred, but there's smoke damage throughout.

The Refuge is a Christian outreach center in Detroit Lakes that provides people in need with food, ministry and counseling services. Most of those services have been suspended during reconstruction, although the Celebrate Recovery support group has been temporarily relocated to Christian Fellowship Church (meetings are Monday nights at 5:30 p.m. and include a meal). And The Compassion House, a men's drug treatment facility run by The Refuge in a separate building nearby, is operating normally.

"There's really nothing else we can do right now," said Manning. "We just have to get everything put back in place."

The Mannings were out of town when they got the call about the September 22 fire. Someone reportedly broke into the building during the night, breaking a window to gain access and leaving an electric crockpot turned on.

"Homeless people have broken in here before," Manning said. "My big concern was that they (firefighters) would find a body or bodies, and my big hope was that I wouldn't get a second call about that."

Fortunately, he didn't get that call. No one was found inside the building, hurt or otherwise.

When the Mannings got back to town and stepped inside the building for the first time since the fire, "My heart was broken," said Mel. "The place was just destroyed."

But, he added, "The biggest thing is, everybody's safe. We can put this (building) back together... We're going to continue on. We're not going to stop."

Manning said it's always been his plan and vision to work at The Refuge "until the day I die," and "there ain't no fire or discouragement that's going to change that."

While The Refuge is closed to the public for now, Manning is still there most days, doing whatever he can to have the place ready for cleanup and reconstruction. He said people have been stopping by every day, either because they assume The Refuge is still open, or to offer their support, encouragement and prayers.

"We appreciate this town," he said. "The people have stood with us. We appreciate so much the support that we get. We want to be able to continue to serve the community — that's what we're here for."

After the insurance company is through with its part, people who want to help with the cleanup and reconstruction efforts will be welcomed. Manning is hoping most of the work will be done by folks from The Refuge and other volunteers, to help stretch their insurance dollars and make the most of the reconstruction. Donations are also being accepted.

"This ministry helps a lot of people," said Scott Ailie, the vice-president of The Refuge. "I've watched a lot of people come in and out of this (Manning's) office. They're desperate, broke, homeless, struggling with addiction... Seven days a week, they're helping people try to find their way. It's a real blessing to the community."

Phone lines at The Refuge are currently down, but people who want to help can call Manning at home, at 218-841-3758.

"It's always easier to throw in the towel, but that's not what we're supposed to do," Manning said. "You have a lot of mixed feelings over something like this, but Number 1 is, I know that God hasn't brought us this far to leave us... God is the repairer. He puts the pieces back together. So we'll watch that, and that's the beauty that we'll see."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452