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'I want to be compassionate'

For volunteers working in Mississippi, spending a week helping is just the right thing to do.


For the volunteers working inside one of Mississippi's hurricane-ravaged homes, spending a week helping is just the right thing to do.

On a sunny Monday afternoon in Pass Christian, several members of Kleefeld Evangelical Mennonite Church in Manitoba, Canada, were sanding and painting drywall. "I wanted to come here to be Jesus' hands and feet," said Phyllis Harder. "I want to be compassionate."

One of Harder's painting buddies nodded. "When I saw (Hurricane Katrina) on the news, I wept," said Sandi Toews. "I was so overwhelmed with the loss - of lives, homes, jobs and everything. So when our church talked about this mission trip, I said I'd like to go, too. It's better to be here helping, not just watching it on TV."

Harder and Toews are part of a 39-member team serving Hurricane Katrina survivors in Louisiana and Mississippi for the next week. The crew also includes members of the church's youth group. The teams are working on projects set up by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

In Pass Christian, yards are still covered in debris. Severely damaged homes still sit untouched, with some leaning precariously off their foundations. In other neighborhoods, only slabs remain where once houses stood. Pieces of siding, torn clothing and plastic bags remain stuck in trees and wrapped around branches.

Crews like the Kleefeld team are helping repair damaged homes, build several brand new homes and set up a new volunteer center to house futures MDS volunteers and staff.

"We've got ten projects going on right now," said Don Oesch, project director for MDS' Pass Christian site. "We're doing four new builds, and we've finished many repairs."

At the volunteer center Monday, crews were working steadily to get the site opened for an April 25 dedication ceremony. The property is made up of three double-wide homes. Two will house 20 volunteers at a time, while the third home will serve as the kitchen and meeting area. The site also has 12 hook-ups for RVs. At the back of the property sits a pile of large felled trees. The recent purchase of a small sawmill machine now has the volunteers even cutting their own lumber.

"We're committed to this area for three to five years, depending on the workload," said MDS' Jim Scott, who spent the day using a farm tractor to spread out the site's gravel driveway.

"The damage down here is unbelievable, there's a lot of work to do."

The widespread destruction has also made the city home to many a trailer and portable living unit. Pass Christian's own town center is all trailers now, with City Hall, a bank and several small businesses residing in brown mobile homes for the time being. The city is bustling with activity, as many of the travel units also house volunteer work crews. In one neighborhood, a large park is covered with RVs and tents housing hundreds of college students doing disaster relief work for their spring breaks.

Volunteers are all over the city. At a Sunday church service, Toews said almost one-third of the audience raised their hands when the pastor asked which attendees were volunteers. That kind of commitment to a community that has many residents holding onto hope. "The woman in front of us teared up when she saw all those hands," said Toews. "They're trying to remain positive. We view it as a blessing to be here."

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Related Links:

Kleefeld Evangelical Mennonite Church

Mennonite Disaster Service

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