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MS volunteers give time, heart

Dick Darnell started his volunteer time in Mississippi cooking food in front of the D'Iberville mayor's home last October.

BY HEATHER MOYER | D'IBERVILLE, Miss. | April 4, 2006

Dick Darnell started his volunteer time in Mississippi cooking food in front of the D'Iberville mayor's home last October. Now he cooks two meals everyday for up to 100 volunteers at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Volunteer Village.

"I ran into (the village directors) one afternoon in October and told them I am a cook - then they wouldn't let me leave," laughed Darnell, the kitchen manager for the D'Iberville village.

Darnell is a long-term volunteer for PDA at the village, but spending his time in service to others is not new to him. A Vietnam veteran, Darnell has worked with the veterans ministry group Point Man Ministries in his hometown of Phoenix for years. His coming to Mississippi as a long-term volunteer was a natural step. "I'm retired now, so this gives me the opportunity to give back to a nation that's given a lot to me."

He's also utilizing grants from the Vietnam Veterans of America to support his work at the PDA village. "That organization gives grants to veterans, and so we've gotten some grants to help with the food and cooking equipment here," explained Darnell.

Darnell's community spirit is also present because of a major event in his childhood. When he was 11, his home burned down. The neighbors around his family then helped them rebuild. He said the more he learns about the people and volunteers around D'Iberville, the more his choice to work there is bolstered.

"I chose this community because they're wonderful. A local person described them as 'made of iron, with hearts of gold.' That's very true," said Darnell.

"I tell you what, I can't even explain the elation that's in my heart. I get a lot more out of it than I give. I have a tremendous amount of bad memories from Vietnam, and this experience replaces those."

And so he's more than happy to make huge meals everyday for the volunteers. The menu changes all the time, said Darnell, noting that he makes a wide variety of meals depending on what food is available. His expression of "showing love" through feeding people is one that's garnered him thousands of friends.

"I've met thousands of people through this. Some have become life-long friends. I must correspond with 30 to 40 people regularly who've volunteered here. They continue to support me and this village. They come back sometimes, too. They also tell their neighbors to come down here - and they do."

Darnell said he's committed to being the village kitchen manager for as long as PDA needs him there. Be it two or three years - "Whatever they need - the enormity of this response is baffling," he said. Then with a smile and a hearty laugh, he added, "As long as people come here to help, I'll be willing to feed them."

Across the PDA volunteer village from Darnell's kitchen is a trailer home to village manager Kathryn Renton. Renton is busy what seems like 12 hours each day, organizing the incoming volunteers, arranging their housing, working with the volunteer team leaders and managing the crews while they're in town. It's a challenging first job for a 22-year-old recent graduate of Harvard University - but Renton said it's exactly what she's supposed to be doing right now.

Like so many other volunteers, Renton was motivated by the images of Katrina inundating the country in September. "I was watching it unfold on TV, and I was sitting there with nothing to do," said the Connecticut native. She was looking for a full-time job after graduating only three months before. With so much free time on her hands, she knew she had to do something.

Renton went through training with the American Red Cross, but ended up not getting sent anywhere. Then in December, a friend's church organized a work trip to D'Iberville.

"It was a moving experience," explained Renton. "What little we were able to do was still so much to the homeowners - it was like our work made them able to do the next step."

That same friend who got her connected with this trip was in a similar place in life as Renton. The friend ended up getting hired as the village manager over at the PDA Volunteer Village in Orange Grove, Miss., and quickly got Renton connected with the D'Iberville position.

"They hired me because I was able to give them a chunk of my time," said Renton. "This was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. It's a good combination of practical things and also knowing you're helping people."

Now Renton manages almost the entire workings of 80 to 90 volunteers each week, and will do so until her term is up at the end of May. And even though her term is up then - she's not so sure that will be the end of her work.

"Right now I'm not sure I'm going to leave this area. I'd never seen this part of the country before - it's a real community down here. I can't think of anything else that's better for me."

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