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Calaveras County, California — As they built homes in northern and north-central California, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) project directors and volunteers coped with the unexpected by focusing on the wildfire survivors they were helping.

Don Mintmier, project director in Calaveras County, led a home dedication on March 21 attend-ed by more than 35 people. As he nears the closing of the project, he said the completed homes are the product of dozens of volunteers who have served there since mid-January.

For Mintmier, who is originally from Johnstown, Pa., connecting the work of volunteer crews, week after week, has been a rewarding part of helping fire survivors, many of whom had to evacuate with only a few minute’s notice before their homes were engulfed in flames during the 2015 wildfires.

“A lot of people came before us,” said Mintmier. “A lot of people never get to see a dedication. They work on these houses from the ground up and they never get to see this.”

As volunteers worked on the homes, they also recalled times in their own past when their living conditions were challenging. Volunteer Mike Barber, who is from Colorado, remembers growing up in a family of five kids, three of whom slept on the floor. “I learned to sleep really still growing up because the roof leaked, and we’d set out cans to catch the water. If I rolled over, I’d tip the can, and that water was cold!”

Two locations in California where MDS projects are currently located – Calaveras County and Lake County – are notorious for both true stories and tall tales. In Calaveras County, the setting of Mark Twain’s 1865 story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” visitors pan for gold, and stories of finding gold nuggets still circulate in local communities. In Lake County, tiny glittering quartz crystals stand out against the charred earth, and there visitors and residents alike search for unique “Lake County diamonds.”

MDS volunteers begin framing at Camille Green’s new house at the MDS project in Calaveras County, CA. MDS Photo/Julie Kauffman

Both locations were devastated by wildfires, each fire larger than 70,000 acres. Burned tree trunks are starkly visible against the sky, and driving into remote areas where MDS houses are being built are often delayed by tree-cutting operations or roads made impassable by heavy rain.

Volunteers have responded not only by working harder, but by bringing a spirit of community support that belies the difficult conditions. Dave Hagelgans, of Kleinwallstadt, Germany, who is working on different MDS sites for a year, became a familiar face to the road flagman in Lake County who was stationed on a route to an MDS house.

“During a long drive, I greet my friend, the flag guy Tony, and the road crew high-fives our work crew,” said Hagelgans.

Though Hagelgans is a long-term volunteer for 11 months, many volunteers work for one week, then return home. Hagelgans is sponsored by the German Mennonite voluntary service organi-zation, Christliche Dienste.

Dave Wiebe, MDS project director in Lake County, said being in charge of volunteers is akin to running a construction company in which one crew is gone, then replaced by a whole new crew the very next week.

“But even though MDS works through volunteer labor, I think our houses are above average,” said Wiebe, who lives in Elm Creek, Canada. “If something is wrong, we take time to correct it. A contractor won’t always do that.”

By Susan Kim for MDS


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