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Photo credit: David King 

Volunteer Bruce Kindy works in Marianna, Fla., where four new MDS homes are underway. 

Four families in the hurricane-damaged Florida Panhandle city of Marianna will open the doors to their new homes by summertime, thanks to work now underway by Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers.

A half dozen volunteers who traveled from Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana are working together for the whole month of March in the northwest Florida city, home to about 7,000.

With more crews scheduled to arrive in April, MDS Project Director Don Mintmier said he hopes to have the four homes finished by May.

The MDS job site operates a bit differently now than in the past because of COVID-19 safety measures, explained Mintmier.

“All the volunteers are long-termers, meaning they are staying for the whole month, whereas in the past we had weekly volunteers,” he said.

Volunteers are housed at the Rivertown Community Church, where there is enough space for them to stay socially distanced during meals and in sleeping quarters that keep family members or small groups together.

“We also have COVID mitigation cleaning practices in place, including in the dining area, and, on this site, we have always worn masks and still do,” said Mintmier. “I want people to to know that we can observe these rules, and that it’s different— but that we can still build new houses.”

Volunteer David Mininger, who traveled to Marianna with his wife from their home in Stuarts Draft, Va., had originally signed up to serve at an MDS project in Louisiana but switched to Marianna when MDS informed them of the need for long-term volunteers there.

“We already had the month of March set aside for service,” said Mininger. “This is our first long-term project.”

After reviewing the MDS COVID-19 guidelines, Mininger said he felt he and his wife could safely serve. “We’re taking an abundance of precaution and all the volunteers got COVID tests before they came,” he said.

Jack Tillotson, who drove to Marianna from Nashwauk, Minn., agreed that he and the other volunteers were doing whatever they could to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This is the first time I’ve been on an MDS project since COVID started,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it!”

MDS’s response in Marianna is part of the Florida Panhandle’s long-term recovery from Hurricane Michael, which made landfall near Mexico Beach in October 2018. Michael was the third most intense Atlantic hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous United States, causing at least $14.5 billion dollars in damages.

MDS is working in partnership with the North Florida Long-Term Recovery Committee, with materials supplied from grants from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the American Red Cross.

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