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A group of people sitting around picnic tables outside.A group of people sitting around picnic tables outside.

The Shenandoah Valley unit meets for a picnic to celebrate creativity during the pandemic.

Dozens of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) volunteers in Harrisonburg, Virginia gathered for a picnic in May to celebrate the creative ways they had responded to community needs during the pandemic.

Brimming with joy at seeing each other in-person for the first time in more than a year, they met to mark how more than 250 volunteers in the Shenandoah Valley had  creatively and safely reached out to help their community.

“COVID-19 presented unique needs from various organizations and institutions,” said Rich Rhodes, chair of the MDS Shenandoah Valley Unit. “Many of those who helped out with the COVID response were seniors.”

At the picnic, local MDS volunteer coordinator Phil Helmuth thanked the volunteers and recalled some of the many ways in which they served.

“They started off by making masks—thousands of them,” said Helmuth. “Then, right on the heels of that, the first responders in our area said they needed some personal protective gowns.”

The volunteers created a pattern for a gown made of Tyvek house wrap. “We had people who set up in their garage for a Tyvek cutting process,” said Helmuth. “They would lay a pattern on the Tyvek, and then they would cut it out. It was incredible.”

One couple cut out about 12-15 gowns a day. “We had both men and women cutting and men and women sewing,” Helmuth said. “Some of them were folks who served on MDS projects before—but not all. We tapped into a whole new source of volunteers.”

During January and early February 2021, some students at Eastern Mennonite University contracted COVID-19, while others who had been exposed had to quarantine in local hotels.

“MDS volunteers delivered meals to 45 students twice a day for eight days,” said Helmuth. Volunteers loaded the meals onto a luggage cart at the hotel, then left them by the students’ doors. “We’d have someone go and knock on the doors and say, ‘Dinner!’” said Helmuth.

“COVID-19 presented unique needs from various organizations and institutions. Many of those who helped out with the COVID response were seniors.”

— Rich Rhodes, chair of the MDS Shenandoah Valley Unit

After waiting for a minute or two, students would open their doors. “You’d hear, ‘thank you…thank you…thank you…echoing down the hallway,” he said.

When COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out, volunteers shifted gears once again with at least 40 volunteers helping to direct traffic at vaccine clinics in half-day shifts. When the City of Harrisonburg wanted to reach out to underserved communities, MDS volunteers distributed door-hangers with vaccine information in eight languages.

“Most recently, some of our folks who speak Spanish are helping at vaccine clinics,” said Helmuth. “My role was basically doing the scheduling and identifying people who might be able to help. I called anybody I knew who might help.”

Now as MDS volunteers are gradually shifting back into a normal routine, Rhodes noted that some traditional work was able to continue despite COVID.

“Numerous groups have assisted with home construction at various projects, and also plumbing repairs after the winter freeze in Texas,” he said.

Shenandoah Valley volunteers were also involved with two homes completed in West Virginia through the MDS Adaptive Housing Project, and they also helped construct driveway bridges in West Virginia.

Helmuth added: “I have a van load of eight people who are heading to Jennings, Louisiana, to help set up the project site before volunteers arrive to repair homes, and more than half of them are volunteers who served during these COVID-related opportunities.”

The picnic was sponsored by the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg Fire Department, Rockingham County Fire Department, and Blue Ridge Hearing Center.

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