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MDS volunteers in Florida: working safely, respecting each other

December 15, 2020

As Don Yoder temporarily closed the doors of the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) project in Marianna, Florida in early December, he looked back on the last couple of months: “It’s been an interesting journey,” he said.

Yoder served as office manager for the project, arriving on Oct. 11. He was part of the MDS long-term volunteer team that set up the site, worked with the North Florida Long-Term Recovery Committee to find appropriate work for volunteers and, perhaps most challenging of all, implement MDS’s COVID safety guidelines to keep volunteers as healthy as possible.

After MDS closed its projects during the first wave of COVID in March, the Marianna location was one of the first to reopen in the fall. Volunteer help was badly needed in the northwest Florida community, where it’s difficult to tell at this juncture which hurricanes over the past several years have caused the most damage.

From Oct. 11 through Nov. 30, the Marianna project hosted 296 volunteers, all of whom worked at least one day. Collectively, they tallied 3,000 volunteer hours.

For Yoder, it was difficult to again shut the doors because of a second COVID surge. “When we talk to the homeowners, it’s even more painful,” he said. Yet he understands the reason behind the shutdown.

If it is safe to do so, Yoder and his team hope to return in January with the goal of finishing the four homes already underway by March 2021.

Meanwhile, Yoder reflects back on what has been accomplished.

Top of the list is that the volunteers have given homeowners a sense of hope. None of the long-term volunteers contracted COVID; Yoder believes this is because they were diligent about using masks, social distancing and carefully sanitizing common areas.

The most important protocol? “Have respect for each other,” said Yoder. “I don’t say God will keep COVID from us, but I do say that we need to trust God when we do our part. I think God honors that. It’s a combination of trusting God and doing our best.”

And behind that “best” is Emma Yoder, the COVID safety manager for the Marianna site.

From separating volunteer groups into families or small pools of people, to requiring masks at all times except when eating, to completely ventilating the main MDS warehouse two times daily, she managed to enforce the rules without alienating volunteers. 

“I would tell them, ‘I just want you to know I hate wearing a mask,’” she said. “But I choose to do it because I care about you, coming in here. I’m hoping you have the same respect for us.’”

She believes that the rules—and even more the philosophy of respect and caring behind them—worked well.

“It always seemed to resonate with people,” she said.

Although head cook Kristina Miller could still use her favorite recipes, the pandemic changed the way she served the food. This included using individual packets of ketchup, wrapping each silverware set in its own napkin, and eliminating buffets in favor of serving people one at a time.

For lunches, she said, “we packaged individually the meat, cheese, bread, everything, so they came through and grabbed a package, and put their own lunches together at the job site.”

Project Director Don Mintmier, who has been a long-term volunteer with MDS for 11 years at various projects, said the volunteers who came to Marianna proved their resilience and dedication. Despite the challenges, “we tried our best to have meaningful work for them,” he said.

Echoing his fellow long-term volunteers, Mintmier expressed how difficult it is to leave.

“There’s one homeowner who, every time he talks about us, has tears in his eyes,” said Mintmier. “They’re all anxious to get back home, that’s for sure.”