September 19, 2023
Summer students reflect on service with MDS
Eight students received scholarships to serve in Cape Breton
Long days and early mornings, and a “ton of manual labour.” That’s one of the things Jared Sumner of Surrey, B.C. remembers about his month in Cape Breton as a student scholarship recipient with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Canada.
But he also remembers the people he met and the new skills he acquired while serving.
“As I continued to serve and work and do new and different jobs, my body grew to love and enjoy the work I was doing,” said Sumner, a student at Columbia Bible College (CBC) in Abbotsford, B.C.
“I feel that with all the skills I acquired through my time serving with MDS I have been set up with skills that will serve me for the rest of my life.”
He missed his home, friends and family. “But MDS provided me with a family away from home, one filled with quirks and qualms but one that looked out for and cared for each other. I always knew no matter what that the team had my back and was there to support and care for me.”
Sumner also enjoyed meeting homeowners. Interacting with them “reminded me each day of why I was putting in the work,” he said. “We were not just repairing buildings but we were repairing homes, sanctuaries and histories. Each house and owner came with new stories, some sad, some happy, but each inspiring. It put a human face and life behind each piece of drywall we installed.”
Sumner was one of eight students from Canadian Mennonite colleges and universities who received a scholarship from MDS this year. In return for one month of service in Cape Breton, they received funding to cover the cost of four three-credit hour courses.
“Amazed at how much I was capable of doing”
Also receiving a scholarship was Katie Wray, also from CBC.
“I had such a meaningful experience serving at MDS and have gained skills and knowledge that will benefit me for years to come,” she said. “I was amazed at how much I was capable of doing when properly instructed on how to do the task.”
The work was physically challenging. “However, I learned so much and gained confidence knowing that I didn’t have to be good or experienced at what I was doing but just be willing to try new things and have a teachable attitude,” she said. “Being here taught me a lot about myself and allowed me to see the importance of being willing to serve in any way, shape or form.”
Before arriving in Cape Breton, Wray thought she had an idea of what service with MDS would be like. When it turned out different than she expected, “I was disappointed until I realized that serving people can look so different and can have such a big impact on so many,” she said. “That’s why we need to come in with an open mind and open hands and be ready to be used by God in ways that we don’t expect.”
Wray also enjoyed getting to know the MDS leadership volunteers, those who serve for a month as Project Directors, crew leaders and cooks.
“I became close with several of them and they became like my adopted grandparents and family,” she said. “They looked out for me and encouraged me . . . this was such an amazing community to be in and to have people that are like-minded and here for the same purpose was meaningful.”
Experiencing God through service
For Brayden King, also a student at Columbia Bible College, service with MDS was a time to “experience the work of God through the Holy Spirit both in my own life and the lives of those around me. I met people from all over Canada, each with their own story.”
One experience that stuck with him was repairing a ramp for an elderly woman in the early stages of dementia. Hurricane Fiona had destroyed the ramp, which was used by her late husband to access their house.
“It was one of the ways she was reminded of him even in her diminishing mental acuity,” said King. “We were able to rebuild the deck so that she would continue to be able to use it and be reminded of her husband.”
When another homeowner cried telling the story of what MDS meant to her family, “it reminded me of the strong impact MDS has had not only in Cape Breton but throughout North America.”
“Amazing to see God’s presence”
Andres Proanas is a student at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in Winnipeg. Service with MDS was “a great opportunity to learn about my own relationship with God and with others.”
For him, it was “amazing to see God’s presence in our crews but also in the interactions we had with people from Cape Breton.
That included the time he and another volunteer saw a local person in a parking lot who seemed to want their attention. The volunteers were in a hurry to get to a job, but Proanas felt a tug to stop and talk.
The person “mainly wanted to be heard, he wanted to talk about his life and his problems after Hurricane Fiona,” Proanas said.
After that encounter, the two MDSers thought that was “a God moment,” as MDS likes to describe it. It caused Proanas to reflect on his relationships with others.
“Sometimes our lives get really busy, and slowing down seems difficult,” he said. But it’s important to take time to stop and reflect on what God wants us to do.”
For Proanas, being in Cape Breton with MDS “was a blessing from God, a great opportunity to serve and explore beautiful places in Nova-Scotia. I know that God wanted me to learn from each of the experiences I had and each person I met. This project taught me about wait in God’s plan because we don’t need to rush our life. God has everything under control.”
Food “exceeded my expectations”
One thing that stood out for Ricardo Andrews, a student at Steinbach Bible College, was the meals.
“I must say that the food plan exceeded my expectations tremendously as it is very important to have a fulfilling breakfast before going to work and similarly at the end of the day at supper time,” he said.
Due to his prior experience with roofing, he worked on a roof for two weeks. “It was truly a blessing to know just how much the homeowner appreciated our efforts,” he said.
He also appreciated the activities after work, including hikes and visiting the Miner’s Museum in nearby Glace Bay.
Andrews’ last job was fixing a home badly damaged by the storm. Despite limited time before MDS closed the project in Cape Breton, “we were able to make exceptional progress and our efforts exceeded both the homeowner’s and our expectations.”
When the volunteers learned the homeowner didn’t own a fridge—his had been damaged by the storm—they pooled their money to buy him a new one.
“To see just how much he appreciated everything we did to help him was truly a blessing,” he said.
Overall, serving with MDS “touched my heart and served as a fulfilment of spirit for my spiritual journey,” Andrews said. “Ever since I was young, I found tremendous joy in helping others as this is truly the greatest gift. I hope sometime in the future I will be able to serve with MDS again and encourage others to join me in sharing this experience.”
Service “truly transformative”
For Cleto Mhuru of CMU, serving with MDS was “truly transformative.”
Although Mhuru had some building experience in Zimbabwe, the work in Cape Breton “was at a whole new level. I was introduced to power tools, which made the work faster, more efficient, and required less effort. Thanks to technology, life is definitely made much easier.”
As with the other students, he was touched by meeting homeowners.
“I heard their harrowing stories and saw firsthand how much MDS meant to them,” he said. “Witnessing MDS demonstrate genuine love by rebuilding houses for those in need was inspiring. It showed me the importance of physically helping people in crisis, not just offering lip service.”
Like for Andrews, Mhuru was also impressed by the meals. “The food provided by MDS was delicious and plentiful,” he said of the breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks, supper, and dessert he enjoyed every day. “The cooks were excellent and spoiled us with their delicacies.”
Another highlight was the daily morning devotions. “They brought me closer to God and gave me a sense of commitment to service each day,” he said, adding MDS’s song “This is the Day” has stuck with him “and now use it as my morning devotional song.”
Serving with MDS also gave him “a chance to meet and make new friends from all walks of life . . . I cherished every moment I spent working with each one of them.”
For Mhuru, “MDS is a light to the world, shining hope and life to the hopeless and desperate. If given the chance, I would love to serve with MDS again.”
Impact on the community
One thing the students noticed was the impact they and the other MDS volunteers had on the community.
“I noticed how friendly and supportive the community around us was and how much the homeowners and everyone else appreciated the work we were doing,” said Wray, adding “people were overflowing with thanks for what MDS had done and were shocked that people would come from across the country to help strangers they didn’t know.”
One homeowner, she said, “spoke of said how our group had restored her faith in humanity and brought her so much joy in knowing that there are people who are willing to come and serve those in need.”
Sumner had similar experiences.
“MDS doesn’t just touch individuals or families, but it touches communities,” he said. “During my time in Cape Breton, whether it was filling up the crew van or going out and getting supplies, there would always be the inevitable ‘Hey! You’re one of them Mennonites! Thank you for all the work you guys are doing!’”
Having people he had never met before “coming up to me, shaking my hand and thanking me shows the impact our work has . . .it is God working beyond us in the lives of the communities we touch.”
King related how many of the people he met had a story about how “’the Mennonites’ had come to their rescue” due to the hurricane.
Another homeowner shared how she had researched religions all over the world but would be looking up specifically the Mennonite “religion” as soon as she was able.
As Mhuru put it: “I have witnessed MDS truly demonstrating God’s love through rebuilding homes in Cape Breton.”
Two of the scholarship recipients chose not to share their reflections.
John Longhurst, MDS Canada Communications