Mennonite Disaster Service Works with Communities to Rebuild Lives

The nonprofit’s disaster relief efforts are built upon decades of experience.

Long-term recovery efforts are rife with stories of shady contractors, shoddy construction and vanishing volunteers. Months after a tornado wiped out parts of Joplin, Mo., in 2011, a mother of four was living in a house with broken windows and a disconnected heater as temperatures dropped into the 30s at night. She paid a contractor $8,000 to do repairs but he disappeared before finishing the work.

That kind of fraud was rampant after Hurricane Katrina and happens after other disasters. Following Hurricane Sandy last fall, residents were warned of home repair scams, where “contractors” suggest their work is supported by the federal government when it’s not.

It’s common for well-meaning groups, and some not-so-well-meaning people, to descend upon disaster scenes with a desire to “help.” Often the locals, who’ve just been battered by a storm or other disaster, feel as if they’re being told what to do, how to do it and why by outsiders, only to be left with less than desirable results in the end.

Maybe that’s what makes the stories about the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) seem exaggerated, almost corny. But anyone in the throes of a long-term recovery project could heed what the MDS has learned over the last 60-plus years.

It goes above and beyond. Its volunteers blend in. They become part of the family. They do what is asked and ask for nothing. And they do great work. That’s what you hear about the Mennonites, who since 1950 have made it part of their lives to help rebuild others’ lives.

Like the West End in New Iberia, La., already hit hard by blight and now ravaged from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and left to rebuild on its own. Mennonites built new homes there for residents who hadn’t seen new homes constructed in decades. In fact, following the hurricanes, about half of the 6,000 who volunteered to rebuild Louisiana were Mennonites, according to Lorna Bourg, co-founder and president of Southern Mutual Help Association.

“There’s not a chance in hell that we would have been able to recover the coastal communities of Louisiana without the Mennonite Disaster Service as a partner,” she said. “And in a subdivision east of us, in St. Mary Parish, they built three homes from scratch for special needs families. It
was really quite amazing.”

The MDS had a “huge” impact on 11 parishes in Louisiana and contributed to rebuilding more than a thousand units, including houses, churches and businesses. “We had a lot of volunteers from churches and colleges and community groups, but the Mennonites were the real builders,” said Bourg. They do “everything from A to Z.” 

The “Z” might be diving in brackish waters to find cement blocks that delineate exactly where the property lines are, which is what one Mennonite did. “You couldn’t locate the corner block so he began diving down in the water for like a week,” Bourg said. “It’s mucky mud.”

Brenda Phillips, professor at Oklahoma State University and a researcher at the university’s Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events, has watched the MDS rebuild communities hit with disasters since the Coalinga, Calif., earthquake in 1983. She said the organization’s approach in getting communities back on their feet is one to be emulated. The MDS takes things slowly and asks about needs. It suggests that what has worked in other communities might work again. And its volunteers build relationships.

“They walk it slowly and sort of let their actions speak for themselves,” Phillips said. MDS volunteers will meet with members of a local long-term recovery committee to discuss what help is needed and who needs it. They go into a disaster area looking for “meaningful work,” which means helping people who are uninsured, underinsured or those who wouldn’t get home without help.

“When they set up a project site,  usually they’ll do short-term repairs, clean up, pick up debris. In Joplin they rounded up turkeys that had gotten away from a turkey farm. They’ll do anything.”

Partly from decades of experience in disaster recovery and partly as a way of life, the Mennonites understand that it takes time and work to build trust. “They’re very mindful of every aspect of a relationship,” Phillips said. “They do a lot of processing and talking about it internally: ‘What’s working here? What’s not working? What can we improve?’ They’re constantly tinkering.”

That’s important because there is no template, no one-size-fits-all approach to long-term recovery. “Each set of people is different, and they bring that sort of sensibility to it,” Phillips said. “Everyone says they’re the best and there are good reasons why people think that, but they’re constantly looking internally asking, ‘What can we do better?’”

Most communities are not prepared for long-term recovery, and most people on a long-term recovery committee have never been on one before. “Most of them have never done anything like that before and some of them are doing it at the same time they’re rebuilding their own houses,” Phillips said. She said it’s a challenge for the locals to step up and rebuild the community and their own lives, especially when outsiders are coming out of the woodwork, some of whom can’t be trusted.

“The Mennonites come in low key and don’t demand things of you,” Phillips said. “They don’t come in and tell you what to do. It’s about respecting the local community and their vision for how they want to proceed.”

And they are self-sufficient. After North Dakota’s Red River flooded, Phillips watched the MDS rebuild an abandoned YMCA, then clean up furniture from an abandoned motel to set up a place for volunteers. “In New Orleans they renovated an abandoned church, put in a beautiful kitchen to feed volunteers and built bunk beds for the long-term volunteers.”

Phillips said that while in New Orleans, one hurricane victim said she wanted to wake up in the morning and raise a cup of coffee across the Bayou to her sister. So when rebuilding her house, MDS changed its footprint so she could. Another woman wanted to save a tree and MDS volunteers built the house around the tree.

“They’re a model for a type of disaster relief,” said Pamela Jenkins, founding and associate member of the University of the New Orleans Center for Hazard Assessment, Response and Technology. “They’re in it for the long haul; they’re in it for rebuilding the community as the community would like and not everybody was like that.”

They also showed a creative side early on in the aftermath of the Katrina disaster by helping a local nongovernmental organization (NGO) write a grant funding proposal, which became a long-term funding stream for that organization. “After that initial grant, this NGO continued to apply for that money and still is seven and a half years after the storm,” Jenkins said. “In that instance, they really built a partnership that had long-term consequences for the NGO.

“They understand that their work is life’s work,” she said. “Not everybody gets that. It’s a lesson about how to deal with people whose community is broken.”

The MDS is a nonprofit organized by state-level chapters, or units, four regional chapters and one in Canada. The whole network is run by volunteers and is coordinated by a binational office in Pennsylvania.

The MDS offers expertise in two phases: the early response phase or cleanup and rebuilding. Early response means debris removal, cutting up downed trees, making dwellings safe. Then there’s a lull until details like insurance and FEMA declarations get sorted out.

After that the rebuilding process begins, some three to six months after the initial disaster. “We don’t know the Jacksons from the Smiths or who has insurance and who doesn’t so we depend on the long-term recovery committee,” said Kevin King, MDS executive director.

Those committees are made up of locals — the United Way president, a church pastor and people of similar standing in the community. They begin to discuss who has and who doesn’t have insurance, how much money is being donated by the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and others and so forth.

“They bring the money to the table, and we bring the labor,” King said. “If you have the capacity to go out and get a loan, you don’t really need our help. We can’t rebuild all the homes [damaged by] Hurricane Sandy, so we’re looking at those unmet needs.”

Oftentimes those people are elderly or have physical challenges and they’ve failed the income test from the Small Business Administration. The MDS will build these people a three bedroom, bath-and-a-half house for $60,000. That money comes from donations and, of course, the rest is taken care of by the MDS.

A local church is often used as a shelter for volunteers. In New Orleans, an MDS crew rebuilt an abandoned church, built bunk beds and used that for shelter, cooking and cleaning during the rebuilding effort.

An MDS crew of seven to 12 people works for a month or two at a time. Their travel expenses are paid by MDS, and they get a $20 stipend for food per week, plus a free meal every other week. The volunteers do their own cooking and cleaning. They use local supplies and go to local churches. They have different skill sets and come from all over.

“One is a carpenter from Calgary, Alberta, who works hard all year long then in January, February and March he and his wife go south where it’s warmer,” King said. “It’s his way of vacationing.”

Another volunteer had his son take over the family electrical business, allowing for the father to take a month each year and volunteer on a rebuilding project. Most are retired. King said it’s truly a faith-based mission but that not all of the money donated comes from Mennonites. The $3 million budget is supplied from mostly private sources but a variety of them. He said the Robin Hood Foundation recently donated $150,000 because it heard about the good work the MDS had done.

“[MDS has] a sterling reputation for doing good work,” said David Myers, director of the DHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who also happens to be an ordained Mennonite minister. “They’re one of three or four organizations mentioned in the Stafford [Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance] Act, so they have a long-standing history.”

Myers said it’s part of the Mennonite culture to work hard and do it without a lot of hype. “Their mission is to rebuild homes. They have a reputation related to coming in with really good crews and not a lot of fanfare and getting jobs done on time.”

Myers said the reputation is true of a lot of the faith-based groups that do this kind of work. And he said disasters often show the similarities of people rather than the differences. “Disasters have a way of blowing down fences and making great neighbors. I call it a hammer-and-shovel theology.”

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