LITITZ, Pa. – Rebuilding a community from the ruins of natural disasters requires more than hammers and strong arms. There's emotional damage, too, and those repairs can be the biggest challenge.
That's one key lesson that members of the Mennonite Disaster Service have learned over 61 years responding to the devastation and heartbreak of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. The group has a simple, hands-on mission — getting people back in their homes — but they know they'll do much more.
"We see ourselves as facilitators," said Kevin King of Lititz, Pa., the group's executive director. Volunteers often show up ready with hammers or chain saws, only to find that the first thing people need is someone to talk to.
MDS has sent teams in recent months to help rebuild towns in tornado-ravaged Alabama, Mississippi, and Joplin, Mo., as well as help flood victims in Minot, N.D. It has had crews working in Louisiana and on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts since Hurricane Katrina devastated the region in 2005.
And while some Mennonites and Amish have a tradition of not interacting with modern society, that isn't the case during disasters. The group works with state and federal agencies as well as other churches and secular aid groups.
MDS, with administrative offices in the Lancaster County, Pa., borough of Lititz, has about 3,000 Mennonite, Amish and Brethren in Christ congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada that contribute volunteers and funds. In 2010, the group's total U.S. revenue was about $3.7 million.
About 3,400 volunteers have already contributed 126,000 hours of work this year. Over the last 10 years they've helped 5,200 families and built about 200 new homes. Because much of its strength is volunteers, it spends 79 cents of every dollar on direct relief, MDS officials say.
The emphasis isn't on dropping huge groups into disaster areas. The Mennonites keep response teams to about 20 people to foster personal relationships in communities, where they sometimes stay for years.
John M. Swartzentruber of Halfway, Mo., is currently directing a crew of volunteers in Joplin, where tornadoes in May killed 159 people and destroyed about 8,000 homes and businesses. "I teach them that they have to listen to the people," he said, often before cleaning up a yard or mucking out a cellar after a flood.
Disaster victims, he said, "get scared and they have an emotional attachment. They're dealing with their grief." Sometimes, volunteers must deal with victims who aren't very thankful for their help.
"We were working in a poor area, and these people absolutely just didn't appreciate it, and I thought 'why don't we go to the nicer areas,'" Swartzentruber recalled. But that isn't a solution, he added, telling a story now used in training sessions.
Volunteers were cleaning masses of fallen trees and limbs after one storm, and they came to the property of a wealthy man.
He was so concerned that the crew might mess up his flower bed or yard that he started cursing the volunteers. An older member of the team went over to the man and quietly explained that the crew was working without pay, just to help people in need, and asked the man to "please stop cussing."
"The guy actually broke down and cried" and apologized, Swartzentruber said, so stressed by the storm that he couldn't see beyond a tire mark on a lawn.
King just returned from Minot, where recent flooding damaged 4,100 homes and left thousands homeless.
"It's warm weather, and mold is already growing up the walls," he said. Volunteers are rushing to help clean out houses; even the local Mennonite church flooded.
Besides cleaning up, volunteers deliver food or supplies, or focus on long-term rebuilding, said King. Many learn to cope with such challenges at an early age, in part through a long tradition of helping neighbors in need.
"I grew up hearing stories of MDS volunteers coming to Johnstown to help clean up," said Sarah Yoder, who grew up in the Pa. city known for terrible floods, including the great flood of 1889 when a dam burst, killing more than 2,200 people. Yoder is one of nine full-time employees in the Lititz office, coordinating the thousands of people who volunteer each year.
Volunteers say the experience is exceptionally rewarding.
Phil and Kathleen Maneikis of Kalamazoo, Mich., usually volunteer for 10 weeks each year on various projects. He's worked in North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana, and is currently helping in Birmingham, Ala.
"The challenge that we're faced with as a volunteer is to have a willing heart and not be judgmental," he said. "And don't use the standards where we come from, and place them on other people," added Maneikis, who has made friends in communities that he never would have visited otherwise.
The feelings can go both ways.
MDS volunteers helped Charles Duplessis build a new home from 2008 to 2009 to replace the one in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that was swept away when levees burst during Hurricane Katrina. "We were fortunate enough to be able to meet most of the volunteers. They were good people," said Duplessis, a Baptist pastor. "We worked with them, talked with them, shared with them. It was just a good experience. We made friends, lifelong friends."
King said there's a way for everyone to contribute. One 80-year-old woman bakes doughnuts, sells them and sends a check every month, while another has donated money to help a college student do relief work.
People often ask him where the worst disaster is, and where they should send money.
"And I say, you know, for every individual, it's their worst disaster."
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