September 27, 2023
MDS “feels like a family to me”
Yearlong volunteers from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Germany and Mississippi serve in Red Lake
It’s a long way from Africa to the north woods of Minnesota, but Inkosiihnle Ndlovu-Mathuthu and Jack Odhiambo are enjoying themselves on a cool morning in mid-September as they put new windows into Polly Lussier’s home on the Red Lake Nation reservation.
For Lussier, having two young men come to help her from so far away is “awesome . . . it’s so good to have them here.”
Inkosiihnle—everyone calls him Inko—is from Zimbabwe, while Jack is from Kenya. The two are volunteers with the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Yearlong Program, which provides an opportunity for young adults to learn new skills while serving in the U.S.
Inko and Jack are serving through Mennonite Central Committee’s International Visitor Exchange Program (IVEP), which brings young adults from 25 countries around the world to serve in the U.S. They have been in Red Lake since mid-August, repairing homes damaged by a tornado and hailstorm in July 2021.
Inko, 26, was studying civil engineering in Bulawayo when he decided to apply to IVEP. “It’s been good so far,” he said of this time with MDS in Minnesota. “I especially like the joy our work brings to homeowners.”
He’s also appreciated getting to know other MDS volunteers. “The important thing is to build connections with others as we go through life,” he said, noting that MDS feels “like a family to me.”
Support from crew leaders and other long-term volunteers has also been welcome. “They are my mentors,” he said, adding he’s grateful for how they also “give me space to try things on my own.”
For Jack, 25, service with MDS is a way to use his skills in construction and, at the same time, learn new and different skills. “Houses are built different here,” he said, noting that homes in Kenya are usually made of concrete and bricks. “They use more wood here,” he said.
Service with MDS is also a way to satisfy his travel bug. “I like travelling, exploring, meeting new people and having adventures,” he said. One of those adventures was spending time with a group of Amish who came to Red Lake to serve. “I found them to be so interesting,” he said.
Also serving with Inko and Jack for a year are Janis Ott, 19, of Langenburg, Germany, and Eric Douglas, 39, of Shuqualak, Mississippi.
Janis came to MDS through Christliche Dienste, a German organization that provides opportunities for youth from that country to serve abroad. For him, a year with MDS is a way to get a break from school. “I wanted to take a year to serve before starting my studies,” he said. “Next year, I’m going to study economics.”
Like for the others, service with MDS is a way to learn new skills. “It’s also a chance for me to grow as a person while living on my own,” he said.
He’s also glad to visit the U.S. “It’s my first time to see another continent,” he said. “There have been so many new experiences.”
Eric, an automotive technician, decided to spend a year with MDS because “I like helping and meeting new people,” he said.
For him, service with MDS is a way “to step outside the box, see what God has in store for me, and help others along the way.”
It’s also a way to explore the world, meet others and learn new skills—skills he can take back home with him. “Maybe I can pass them on to younger people,” he said.
At the same time, it’s “a way to let my light shine. When you bless others you are blessed.”
The MDS Yearlong program enables young adults to serve from August to July at various projects across the U.S., developing leadership skills while building relationships and having new experiences. For more information, visit www.mds.org/yearlong-volunteer-program
John Longhurst and Susan Kim