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Service trip is a gift to givers and recipients

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Take some Bethel College students who have grown up doing service projects, mix with a chance to spend a week in Cajun country on the cheap and what do you have?

A spring break service trip appreciated by all concerned.

And for the icing on that cake, add two students interested in church ministry and two congregations’ generous Mennonite-Your-Way hospitality.

Bethel’s Service Corps, a student organization, works at local projects, such as the annual Service Day, throughout the school year and also sponsors the spring break service trip, with funds designated to pay the way – all but $30 apiece – of the students who go.

Last year, the trip was to Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Ill. This year, the group decided they would participate in Mennonite Disaster Service’s long-term project in Cameron Parish in Louisiana’s southwest corner.

Natasha Orpin, a sophomore from Moundridge, Kan., who participated in two church-sponsored service trips as a high school student, and Leah Bartel, sophomore from Golden, Colo., both went to Markham last year and found it a great way to spend the break.

“Markham was a really good experience,” Orpin says. “And this year, too, I wanted to use my [break] time well, by helping others.”

For Caleb Regehr, a senior from Whitewater, Kan., who with Bartel is co-chair of Service Corps, this was his first spring break service trip as a Bethel College student. It was so good, he says, he regrets not doing it in previous years.

Markus Plitzko, Sankt Agustin, Germany, is at Bethel this year as part of its exchange with the Bergische-Universität in Wuppertal. As much as he’s enjoyed his year in Kansas, he says, he’s also eager for chances to get out and see more of the country.

In addition, he says, “It’s good to do something for others rather than just going to South Padre [Island, Texas] to party on the beach for spring break. When you give something to others, you get so much more out of it. I feel so rewarded, and energized for the last eight weeks of school.”

Which isn’t to say these students didn’t get to the beach.

They did finish work – installing insulation, interior painting, putting in cabinets – on new houses MDS has built, and helped complete some small projects, like cleanup and deck staining, in the community. The week of March 20-27 was MDS’ last for this work season in Cameron. The project opened in 2006, after the community had been virtually destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005 – and then it happened again with Hurricane Ike in 2008.

However, when work was over for the day, there were some opportunities to walk on Cameron’s Gulf of Mexico beaches. One evening, there was delicious Southern food and fellowship at a local Methodist church where many of the long-term MDSers attend and, at the end of the week, a visit to a traditional Cajun restaurant, complete with live Cajun band and everyone dancing, from the youngest to the oldest.

Plus there were alligators everywhere.

Even with exotic food and wildlife, the students agreed it was the people they met that made their time in Cameron most special. All listed the dedication they attended for the new home of Mr. Jimmy and Ms. Treva, an elderly couple – a house some of the students got to work on – as a trip highlight.

“Not many short-term groups get to experience a house dedication,” Orpin says. “It was powerful. There was so much gratitude being expressed, from the couple, their family members, their friends. It’s amazing how the work of MDS affects more than just the homeowners.”

For Plitzko, what was amazing was “how strong these people were, to lose everything and still be able to rebuild. It makes your [service] work make sense – it’s why you do it.” Added Bartel, “You could see how much Mr. Jimmy and Ms. Treva appreciated having a home again. There were a lot of tears.”

The generosity of people on this trip wasn’t limited to those in southwest Louisiana. Both on the way there and back, the Bethel group experienced hospitality from Mennonite congregations.

They drove to Inola, Okla., on the first night and stayed in the Eden Mennonite Church, where some members greeted them with cookies, fruit and snacks. On Saturday, they stopped overnight in Houston, where two families from Houston Mennonite Church hosted the group in their homes.

When Chad Childs, Bethel’s vice president of student life and the Service Corps faculty sponsor, had been setting up the trip and talking with Houston Mennonite’s pastor, Marty Troyer, he discovered that Troyer would be away for the weekend as resource person for a snow camp in Colorado. Troyer wondered if the Bethel group had “any students interested in ministry.”

In fact, they did – Regehr, who was a Ministry Inquiry Program pastoral intern at San Antonio Mennonite Church last summer, and Orpin, who is headed for Mountain View Mennonite Church in Kalispell, Mont., with MIP this summer. The two planned a joint sermon based on the lectionary texts in Genesis 12 and John 3.

It was Orpin’s first-ever sermon, and she confessed to being “nervous” but grateful for a small congregation (around 60 in attendance). “I didn’t say anything radical or profound, but it came from the heart,” she says.

On the trip back, the group spent another night at Eden Mennonite Church in Inola and attended worship with the congregation the next morning before heading back to North Newton.

“It made me proud to be a Mennonite,” Bartel says, “that you can call up a church and even if they don’t know you, they’ll host you.”

In addition to Bartel, Childs, Orpin, Plitzko and Regehr, the Bethel group included juniors Linda Gomes, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Annika Janzen, Fresno, Calif., Jennie Warkentine, Wichita, and Peter Wintermote, Hillsboro, Kan.; sophomore Jinwan Dai, Tianjin, China; and freshmen Joe Kondziola, North Newton, and Alex Wynn, Colwich, Kan. The MDS work group for the week also included four men from Bethel College Mennonite Church – Kent Erb, Charles Graber, Dick Koontz and Miner Seymour.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the “U.S. News & World Report” annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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