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Ron Long can easily recall times in his life when his job was extremely difficult, both physically and mentally. As a young man, after considering going into social work, he realized he liked using his hands. He began his career in construction as a laborer, working his way up to become the business owner he is today.

“I remember working for one guy who told me to move a huge pile of rocks from one place to another – for no real reason,” he said.

On another construction site, he was tasked with tamping down the dirt around the foundation of a commercial building – a job that took him a couple of weeks.

Now the owner of a self-storage business, Long was the impetus behind a youth group traveling from Vincent Mennonite Church in Spring City, Pennsylvania to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where, as part of an Mennonite Disaster Service Summer Youth Program (SYP), they are building homes for people who lost their residences to storms in 2015 and 2016.

Recurring severe weather between May 8 and May 29, 2015, brought straight-line winds and flooding. A blizzard – followed by a rapid change in temperature and several days of rain interspersed with hail the size of tennis balls – led to damage across the reservation.

The SYP is a week-long service experience designed for youth and their sponsors to put their hands and feet to the gospel by serving others. SYP project locations are usually determined by late December or early January, after which annual application forms are posted on the MDS website.

During the week, the young people worked on a few different homes among five MDS is building on the reservation. They framed one house, finally raising the walls on their last day onsite. They also painted the interior of another two houses.

The work on the houses is a partnership between young people and local residents hired to complete drywall mudding, electrical work, plumbing and other skilled labor. MDS is working with both independent contractors and with Hands of Faith Ministries, a nonprofit that trains men in vocational trades and prepares them for employment.

“We try to spend money locally,” explained MDS Project Director Lynn Miller.

Jeff Koller, MDS regional operations coordinator, said that, at Pine Ridge, the crews have done a good job of working alongside local residents. “The number-one need here is employment,” he said, so disaster recovery also involves helping people find work whenever possible.

While local people often work for weeks at a time, SYP youth come for a week, living at an MDS camp in RVs, eating breakfast and dinner in single room house, and making their lunches to eat at the worksite each day. Each morning, they share their reflections by participating in morning devotions and dinnertime reports.

MDS Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Volunteers from Vincent Mennonite Church at Oglala Lake; SD. Left to right, Megan Breidigan, Alyssa Breidigan, Laura Taraboletti, Anika Seitzinger and Lillian Simpson.

They also visit local sites, and at Pine Ridge that includes the Wounded Knee and Crazy Horse memorial sites as well as Mount Rushmore.

Ron Long has been a volunteer many times for MDS. Although the youth have been on mission trips before, this is their first time participating in an MDS project. “Ron was the one who really had the idea to get us involved with MDS,” explained Alyssa Breidigan, 16. “We joke that Ron’s kind of obsessed with MDS. I’ve heard that once you go on one project, you can’t stop.”

Both Breidigan and Laura Taraboletti, also 16, traveled to Puerto Rico, last year, where they helped renovate a Mennonite school. Although not an MDS project, the young women said some aspects of the mission trips were the same. “When you are on a mission project, you need to go with the flow,” said Taraboletti. “You do what you’re told to do.”

Breidigan said she’s been encouraging other people her age to get involved with MDS by volunteering.

“I told someone who doesn’t go to church that I was going to South Dakota,” she said. “He asked if I was going on vacation. I said, no, I was going on a mission trip. He actually thanked me for going. I said, well, you could do that too. I hope people see God in us – and I hope it helps them.”

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