GOSHEN, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — In the past, when Mennonite Voluntary Service participants packed their bags to move to the unit house, the packing list was pretty vanilla: clothes, shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, medication, blanket, pillows, phone charger.
But recent events have added some items to that list, like masks and hand sanitizer. The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept across the world has put a stop to a lot of activities. But MVS is moving forward — with safety precautions and great care.
New MVSer Erin Kauffman hails from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Kauffman learned about the MVS unit in Alamosa, Colorado, while she was studying at Colorado State University (CSU). Her aunt took her on a four-and-a-half-hour road trip to Alamosa. They stayed at the MVS house, taking advantage of her aunt's connections there. Kauffman learned about placements that fit her vocational interests and intersected with her study of soil and crop sciences at CSU.
Kauffman chose to work as the Agriculture and Education coordinator at the Rio Grande Farm Park, an organization that works to preserve humanity's connection to the land through education and sustainable farming practices.
"It was always tucked in the back of my mind that I might be interested in participating," Kauffman said. "I am excited to see how the challenges of such a dry environment are met in practice and to be able to put my studies and love for soil to good use!"
Kauffman first considered doing service during the pandemic, so she was concerned about the limitations to engaging with her community and placement. And while much of Kauffman's work is done from the MVS unit house, she is grateful to be helping with the outdoor weeding and harvesting at the Farm Park a few times a week.
With all participants doing much of their work from home, Kauffman and her housemates have found that they have more time to spend together. "We are often in the kitchen around the same time for lunch," Kauffman said. Since there are very few evening activities, they also eat dinner together most days. Kauffman said she enjoys checking in and talking with her housemates. They've also been going hiking together — a time-honored MVS tradition in Alamosa.
Each MVS unit has been supplied with non-contact thermometers and masks. The units check in with work placements to be sure that proper precautions are being taken at those sites as well. Despite all the measures taken, life during these times can be very stressful, and MVSers are not exempt from this stress.
"Creating routines has been really helpful for me," Kauffman said. She makes it a priority to shut off screens early and read at least a chapter of a book before bed. "I also try to be really intentional about keeping in touch with friends."
Most evenings after dinner, Kauffman heads to a ranch a few miles from the unit house to check on her quarter horse, Tanner.
Having a pet in MVS is not the norm, and Alamosa local leader Alice Price had many things to consider when Erin's request to bring Tanner came to her. The issue of fairness and equity was present, as units have wanted to have pets in the past. After discussion, Price and the Alamosa unit members agreed that Tanner was different from just a "household pet," and that if stabling and feeding were taken care of, Tanner could join Kauffman at her MVS placement.
Price found a rancher who was willing to stable Tanner, and Kauffman shares the responsibility of care for Tanner and another horse with that horse's owner.
Even though Kauffman would be taking care of Tanner away from the house, Price wasn't worried about it hurting the community aspect of MVS. "[Kauffman] had already expressed a strong commitment to being part of a shared household and its expectations about participation in community life," Price said. They decided that Kauffman's time spent caring for Tanner wasn't different from those participants who participate in sports activities or music groups.
"I am thankful that the Alamosa service unit turned out to be a great fit for this duo," said MVS Director Marisa Smucker. "While it is not often possible to accommodate pets, I am glad it worked out [for Kauffman and Tanner]."
One of Kauffman's main projects at Rio Grande Farm Park is to tend a new farm stand that sells the organization's freshly grown produce. The farm stand has begun its fourth week of operation, and Kauffman said that all is going well.
The farm stand staff take precautions and wear masks. "[Despite the pandemic,] business has been growing, and the community seems excited to have a place to buy fresh, local produce during the week," Kauffman said. "There are still kinks to work out, but overall, it has been a really encouraging start!"
Rio Grande Farm Park is part of the San Luis Valley Local Foods Coalition, an organization that strives "to foster an equitable local food system that restores the health of the people, community, economy and ecosystem."