MDS turns old store into base camp

Goshen College students serve, learn about Native American culture in Minnesota

Goshen College student Cameron Comadoll paints in an old grocery store that will be the MDS center of operations in Red Lake, Minn. — John Longhurst/MDS Goshen College student Cameron Comadoll paints in an old grocery store that will be the MDS center of operations in Red Lake, Minn. — John Longhurst/MDS

Eleven Goshen College students spent two weeks in May helping convert an old grocery store into a base camp for Mennonite Disaster Service in Red Lake, Minn.

Part of the college’s Environmental Disaster and Response course, the students were in the northern Minnesota community to help MDS get ready to receive volunteers this summer to repair homes damaged by a tornado in 2021.

They were welcomed by Robert Neadeau, director of emergency services for the reservation of about 8,000 people. He had only been in his job for three months when the tornado hit.

“The hail was as big as a softball,” he said. It damaged roofs and siding and broke windows.

The project got started in February when small groups of volunteers came from Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa to start preparing the old grocery store to become the new center of operations. This included some Amish volunteers from Missouri who framed out the bedrooms and hung the drywall.

For Neadeau, who had never heard of Mennonites, MDS’s involvement seemed miraculous.

“Creator works in mysterious ways,” he said. “It’s all in Creator’s timing.”

The Goshen College students sanded, painted, built bunk beds, laid carpet and did plumbing and electrical work.

The group was led by Kendra Yoder, who teaches sociology and women’s and gender studies.

“Not all of our students can go overseas for a semester due to cost, time or documentation issues,” she said of how the college traditionally has sent students to other countries for service and cross-cultural learning experiences. “We knew we needed more shorter- term domestic options. That’s where MDS comes in.”

Through MDS, students can learn about other cultures closer to home, she said. Previous groups served in Florida and Texas.

For Cameron Comadoll, a nursing student, the trip was a way to learn about Native American culture. She considered it a privilege to attend a powwow on the reservation.

Regan Sheipline, who is studying education, learned about Native American customs and ceremonies and how they see the world. The time spent in Red Lake “will make me a better teacher,” she said.

Jeff Koller, MDS Region Three operations coordinator, said the students’ work will make it possible for MDS to repair as many as 60 homes on the reservation.

“I treasure the relationship that has developed between MDS and Goshen College,” he said.

Red Lake Tribal Council member Eugene Standing Cloud is looking forward to meeting and engaging volunteers while MDS is in Red Lake, sharing with them about Native American history, culture and ceremonies.

This will also include countering the traditional narrative about the westward “expansion” of white settlers.

“We call it the invasion from the east,” said Standing Cloud, noting the tribe is still fighting to regain territory lost during treaty negotiations in the 19th century.

The Red Lake project is not the first time MDS has worked with Native Americans in the United States. Previously, volunteers served in Native American communities in South Dakota, Montana and Louisiana.

In Canada, volunteers have served Indigenous people in Brantford, Ont., and also renovated an office for the MCC Ontario Indigenous Neighbours program in Timmins.

In Red Lake, fixing exterior damage to homes caused by the tornado is expected to take place through the summer and into early fall.

MDS could also be involved through the winter doing interior repairs to homes from water damage that resulted from the storm.

“Right now, we don’t know how long MDS will be there,” Koller said. “It could be a year, or maybe two years.”

MDS will leave behind the renovated grocery store for use as a community or youth center.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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