April 12, 2023
Faces of the MDS RV program in Louisiana
From October to March, volunteers from across the U.S. and Canada are serving with the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Recreational Vehicle (RV) program.
They are doing repair work in Grand Isle, a barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico that was battered by Hurricane Ida in 2021, and in Welsh, on the mainland, which was hit by hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020.
The MDS RV program is designed for older adults who want to serve in the southern U.S. during the winter. More laid-back in nature than traditional projects, volunteers work four days a week, six hours a day, usually on lighter repair projects. The term of service is one month or more. Hookups are provided in local campgrounds.
Meet a few of the people, and see some of the faces of the MDS RV program in that state.
Service and sun: Duane and Jean Anderson, Lakeville, Ind.
Service and sun—those are two things Duane and Jean Anderson like about the MDS RV program in Welsh, La.
“It’s a great way to be of help to others in the wintertime,” said Duane, 72.
“It’s a great experience being with others, being active and physical and developing new friendships,” added Jean, 71.
“I feel good about how I can work for others to fix up their damaged house,” said Duane. “It’s good to see them get back up after a disaster and get going again.”
They also really enjoy the friendships they make with the other MDS volunteers.
“We’ve made friends from all over the U.S. and Canada,” Jean said. “We stay in touch and share the ups and downs of life. We’re like a real family.”
“A way to keep serving.” Joe and Roxanna Livermore, Germfask, Michigan
For Joe and Roxanna Livermore, the MDS RV program is a way “for us to keep serving.”
Roxanna, 69, is a non-participating member of the program—an old neck injury prevents her from doing regular repair work.
“But I still feel part of the project, and people make me feel welcome,” she said, adding that she spends her days praying for the volunteers and homeowners and making dish cloths to give away.
Now in their fourth year of doing the MDS RV program—they served in Florida and Texas before—the Livermores are in Welsh, La. They are looking forward to serving more in the future.
“We will keep doing it as long as we can,” said Joe, 68.
Helping others in time of need: James and Linda Showalter, Indianapolis, Ind.
Linda Showalter always enjoyed being around construction. Through the MDS RV program she now gets to do it while being “the hands and feet of Jesus.”
“I like doing the home repairs because you often get to know the owners better and can see the difference you make,” she said.
Linda, 70, and her husband, Jim, also 70, are serving with MDS in Welsh, Louisiana for the month of February to help people impacted by hurricanes Laura and Delta, which hit the area in 2020.
They like the RV program for several reasons.
“The shorter workday and work week is welcome,” said Linda, adding they also like the minimum one-month commitment since it “gives us more time to become a more cohesive group and is helpful in making new, long-lasting friendships.”
For both, serving with the RV program “is a way to demonstrate our belief in Jesus as helping the poor and needy in their time of need.”
RV program “like a family.” Steve and Pamela Haskin, Duncannon, Pa.
“Like a family.” That’s how Pamela Haskin describes what it’s like to be a part of the MDS RV program in Welsh, La.
“I’ve made friends for life,” said Pamela, 69, who is serving with MDS with her husband, Steve, 73.
The Haskins—she is retired from working at a recycling brokerage, he worked in information technology for a career—are in Welsh repairing homes damaged by hurricanes Laura and Delta, which struck the state within six weeks of each other in late summer, early fall 2020.
“We enjoy meeting new people, seeing new places and learning about different parts of the country,” said Steve.
The couple are serving for six months, from October to end of March. “It keeps me healthy and active,” said Pamela.
RV program a good fit: Ned and Mary Gisel of Archbold, Ohio
When Ned and Mary Gisel retired a few years ago, they wondered what they would do next. Then they discovered the MDS RV program.
“We bought a camper because we thought we might like RVing,” said Ned, 70, adding they like the RV program since it “suits us at this stage in our lives.”
For Mary, 69, its about meeting “new people and learn new skills” while serving in Grand Isle, La. She also likes the end result when someone has a fixed-up home. “That’s special,” she said. “It’s great to help somebody.” Added Ned: “That’s why we do it, to get people back home.”
“I’d encourage anyone interested in RVing to consider it,” said Ned, noting it is a good fit for them as a couple. “It’s a great way to spend your retirement years.”
“What God wants us to do.” Paul and Lisa Schamback of Croughan, New York
Why do Paul and Lisa Schamback do service with MDS through the RV program? “We like helping people,” said Lisa.
“It’s fulfilling,” added the 67-year-old, who serves as office manager at the project in Grand Isle, La. “It’s what God wants us to do.”
For Paul, “It’s good to see someone get back on their feet after a disaster,” he said. “It’s good to be part of that process.”
Gettting away from winter is another reason they like the RV program.
“The weather is beautiful, lots of sunshine,” said Lisa, adding the campground where the MDS volunteers park their RVs is “right on the beach. We can hear the ocean waves. What’s not to like?”
“We will keep doing this kind of service until we aren’t able to anymore,” added Paul, adding “it’s not like us to want to sit on a beach. We like to keep busy.”
A “way to do word and deed.” Darlene and Lynn Miller of Arvada, Col.
For Darlene and Lynn Miller of Arvada, Col., the MDS RV program is a great way to meet new people, make new friends and help others.
“I like meeting new people,” said Darlene, 71. “We like helping people get back into their homes after a disaster,” said Lynn. “It’s great to be able to provide hope for others.”
Getting out of the snow and cold in wintertime to be in a place like Welsh, La. is also a good thing, the couple agrees. “It’s nice to be in a warmer place in the winter,” said Darlene.
They could just take a regular vacation, they acknowledge. “But we aren’t sit on the beach people,” she said. “We like the ocean, but not to spend all our time there.”
They enjoy keeping up with the friends they make in the RV program. “We stay in touch, update each other on what’s happening in our lives,” said Lynn.
“Those of us who have been blessed can give our time and talents,” said Darlene, adding “Jesus told us this is the way to live our lives as his followers.”
“We feel called to do this.” Sherry and Ed Epp of Independence, Kansas
One thing Sherry and Ed Epp like about the MDS RV program is being with other volunteers and making new friends. “The camaraderie is absolutely wonderful,” said Sherry, 71.
Ed, 73, agreed. “It’s great to be with like minded people who value service the same way you do,” he said. “There’s something nice about being around people like that.”
The Epps are in Grande Isle, Louisiana, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, doing repair work on homes after Hurricane Ida which struck in 2021. Their home-away-from-home is 33-and-a-half-foot Chaparral trailer.
Having that home is one of the other things they appreciate about the RV program. “It’s nice to have our own space after a day of work,” said Sherry, retired from a career in education.
“It’s a time to clean up, eat what we want and be by ourselves for a bit,” she added, noting they also do potlucks with other volunteers, along with outings like going to restaurants and local bookstores.
As for the work, “it’s not too hard,” Sherry said, noting they like the more relaxed pace of the RV program—volunteers work four days a week, six hours a day on lighter repair jobs. “It suits our age and energy,” added Ed.
It’s also a way to use their gifts, including what Ed called the “gift of service. We feel called to do this.”
RVing a way of life for Andy and Maureen Hudak of Wadsworth, Ohio
For Andy and Maureen Hudak, the MDS RV program isn’t just something to do in the winter—it’s a way of life. The retired couple live year-round in their 20-foot Grand Design Imagine trailer. From January to March, they were in Grand Isle, Louisiana with the MDS RV program.
“We sold our house and downsized in 2016,” said Maureen, 67. “It felt like what we were being called to do. We thought it would be better to get rid of our stuff, instead of just moving it somewhere else.”
In winter, they serve with the MDS RV program; the other months they do things like serve at summer camps, as campground hosts, at a Catholic shrine closer to their home base, and spend time with family.
“We enjoy a simple style of life,” said Andy, 70. “We unburdened ourselves of our possessions. It’s hard for some to understand, but it works for us.”
One thing they especially enjoy are the friendships they make with other volunteers.
“These people are kindred spirits, fellow Christians who are committed to serving and helping others,” said Andy. “Who wouldn’t want to hang out with people like that?” he asked.
“Do as much as we can” to help others through RV program: David and Karen Olson of Waldheim, Saskatchewan
David and Karen Olson are the only volunteers from Canada at the project in Welsh, La.—and they are the oldest volunteers.
The Olsons—they’re both 76—are dual U.S. and Canadian citizens. They have been doing the RV program for three years now, and are currently in Welsh, La.
Karen appreciates how the RV program accommodates her health condition. “They are very understanding of how I work slower,” she said of her rheumatoid arthritis. “If I need to, I can always take a rest. It’s best to stay busy so my condition doesn’t worsen.”
Beyond staying busy, Karen likes helping others. “It’s a passion for me,” she said. “I hope to do this for as many years as I am able.”
It’s the same for David, who is retired from teaching and pastoring at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alberta and as pastor of the Waldheim Mennonite Brethren Church.
“Helping people is what we do and who we are,” he said, adding this is a way to “live out our faith.”
For David, doing MDS service is also a way of practicing what he preached. “For years I told people who were retiring to find something to do with their time,” he said. “Now I have to follow my own advice.”
Getting away from snow and cold is also a benefit, they said. “There’s no reason to freeze at home when people can come down to Louisiana and enjoy the balmy warm weather,” Karen said.
The Olsons intend to keep doing the MDS RV program as long as they can. “The Lord wants us to help people, as taught in scripture,” David said. “We feel God has called us to MDS. We want to do as much as we can for as long as we can for as many as we can.”