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Spring service trip challenges and inspires

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Spending a week doing home repair in the bayous of southern Louisiana was “more relaxing than a trip to Montreal.”

That was the opinion of Chuck Regier, curator of exhibits at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum. Regier, his wife Cindy Bertsche Regier and mdaughter Emma Regier accompanied eight Bethel College students to a Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) work site at Pointe aux Chenes during the college’s spring break, March 18-24. The Regier family had thought about traveling to Canada for the break, but decided to join the Bethel service trip instead.

Last year, the service trip location was in New Orleans, only a couple of miles from the center of the city. That work, also under MDS, was mostly cleanup as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina, which had occurred just a little over six months earlier.

This time, the predominantly Native American and Cajun community of Pointe aux Chenes showed the effects of Hurricane Rita more than Katrina – but, as the students learned, long-term poverty and years of economic devastation from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico had left the most profound marks.

“When are you doing disaster relief and when are you doing development?” was a challenging question the group heard from one of the longer-term MDS workers.

In their few days on site, the Bethel group put up insulation and plywood, built a shed, did painting and roofing, dug ditches for water and sewer lines, leveled an area underneath a raised house in preparation for pouring a concrete slab, and helped to bolt one of the elevated houses down for future hurricane protection.

They also got a tour of a shrimp boat, made friends with neighborhood dogs, received their first mosquito bites of the season and ate shrimp gumbo that a local woman makes for the MDS unit every Thursday, that Cindy Regier said “was better than in a restaurant.” On the Tuesday evening of their stay, they joined about 100 other workers from various volunteer groups in the area that week – including student groups from Kansas City, Manhattan and Salina – for an evening of rice and beans and Cajun music put on by the local Lions Club in appreciation for the help.

Although several in the group had gone on service trips before, this was the first such experience for Will Peterson, freshman from Bonner Springs, and the furthest he had been from home. “It was good to experience a new place, and it was fun. I would definitely do it again,” he said.

“I was impressed with how well everything worked [out], in spite of difficulties,” said Regier.

“We got a lot done – everything MDS wanted us to do in a week,” said Emily Kerbs, senior from Newton. Leanne Reimer, freshman from Hesston, added, “Three families will have better homes because of our efforts.”

In addition to Kerbs, Peterson and Reimer, the students who went on the Bethel College spring service trip were Rosie Hamman-Hartkop, sophomore from Lima, Ohio, Emily Piper, sophomore from North Newton, Heather Robertsen, freshman from Newton, Matthew Root, sophomore from Topeka, and Robert Weaver, senior from Wichita.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

Work as witness to the world

Will, Rosie, Chuck, site leader Maurice from Seattle and I completed our assignment for our first house today. We installed insulation and then put plywood over it. This is normally not a difficult task. Down here in the bayou, however, everything is different.

Our job became more than ordinary insulation work because we were doing it on scaffolding 17 feet off the ground. To be better prepared for the next tropical storm, this house was raised 17 feet and built to withstand 150 mph winds. It is held up by 16 steel ropes and 16 giant wooden pillars sunk into the equivalent of 11 cement trucks worth of concrete.

The man who will be living in the house is Mr. Deme, who currently stays across the street in a very small, rundown house with metal sheets for the roof. He has lost the ability to use his legs due to disease and gets around the neighborhood in a golf cart.

We have enjoyed talking to the two friendly local plumbers who are also working on this house (which we call “Sky House”). Each day, they bring us single-serving iced apple pies from the convenience store. They speak Cajun, a combination of French, English and Spanish.

I have now done three “tours of duty in the service” (Mennonite Disaster Service). My first MDS trip was to inner-city Houston after Hurricane Allison in 2001. My second was to New Orleans in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. I spent spring break this year at Pointe aux Chenes, La., rebuilding houses damaged by Hurricane Rita.

The area where we were this year is deep in the Louisiana bayou. We stayed in a Baptist church on one of the many “fingers” of this bayou. At our work sites, the Gulf on each side and the cool ocean breeze kept the hordes of bugs away (most of the time).

There were clear contrasts between this year and last that were apparent to me as the only returner. Instead of being in the middle of New Orleans, we were eight miles from the closest gas station and miles from the nearest “city” (Houma, La.). We went to bed very early every night and never left the compound. Last year, we took the van and went on adventures downtown a couple of evenings.

One morning at devotions, Will thanked God for even the mosquitoes and bugs. The verse he chose to read was Romans 5, which talks about how suffering leads to perseverance which leads to character which leads to hope. When we got to our work site that morning, the bugs were swarming everywhere for the first time that week. We gave Will a hard time about his prayer. What I learned from the experience is to appreciate the standard prayers requesting good fortune, God’s blessing and protection.

When I was preparing for an MDS trip in high school, my pastor, Lois Harder, shared about her father who had worked at anti-poverty efforts. She told us that we have to realize that what we are doing is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer. We can’t solve the systemic problems of poverty by ourselves or clean up the entire city of New Orleans. Often the line between anti-poverty work and disaster relief if very blurry. The houses I helped to rebuild on my three trips were falling apart long before any hurricane.

Despite the overwhelming nature and constant state of disaster that is poverty, I keep doing what I do because it is the right thing to do. Our task is to serve as a witness is the world. If it catches on and others do more to help – great. If governments choose to stop cutting $99 million dollars to levee strengthening instead of paying $15 billion for hurricane relief, great. If not, we keep doing what we do because it is the right thing to do and it is our job to serve as a witness for what is right, despite all other factors and frustrations.

Robert Weaver, Wichita, is a senior majoring in history.

Group effort makes service more enjoyable

by Leanne Reimer

Pointe aux Chenes wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated. I expected the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita still to be strongly prevalent. However, other than the partially submerged boats along the bayou, there weren’t overwhelming reminders of the damage the hurricanes had caused.

However, in spite of the lack of visual damage, we couldn’t help but observe that many of the homes were of terribly poor quality. Our work with Mennonite Disaster Service in Pointe aux Chenes wasn’t so much hurricane cleanup as an effort of reconstruction.

Upon arrival, we were split into three groups to work on projects at three different locations. My group, consisting of Cindy and Emma Regier, Emily Piper and Emily Kerbs, began the week leveling ground in preparation for concrete to be poured the following week. The house where we were doing this was being built for an elderly man, introduced to us as Mr. Andrew, and his wife. The work was sometimes frustrating because the clay-like mud made digging difficult and people were continuously walking over the work we had just completed.

As the week continued, our jobs changed and we were joined by people who had been working on other projects. There were times that I felt ineffective because of the sheer number of people working at the site. Often, the number of workers surpassed the number needed for the jobs we had been given.

Our group was not the only one volunteering with MDS that week. Three men from the church that was sponsoring Mr. Andrew’s house were there, along with Joe Mast from Arkansas who had previously volunteered but felt called to come back. I had the pleasure of working with Joe installing doors over the attic holes in Sky House (one of the other work sites) and Mr. Andrew’s house. Joe is a semi-retired carpenter and was thoroughly enjoyable to get to know and work with.

Although the work was sometimes tedious, the volunteers I worked with made the overall experience good. That is not to say I wouldn’t change anything about the week – there was room for improvement. However, I prefer to focus on the positive aspects of the trip and what it has taught me rather than dwell on the negative aspects I can no longer change.

I learned that even if the work you’re doing is not enjoyable, the knowledge of how it will benefit someone is very gratifying. You have to look at the final result – what your work will mean. Instead of thinking “I’m gluing plastic pipes together, I’m sweaty and I’m getting eaten alive by bugs,” you can tell yourself “What I’m doing will bring clean water to this house so the people living there can wash and cook.”

Leanne Reimer is a first-year student from Hesston.

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