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Mennonite farmers help their hurricane-affected ‘neighbors’


Allen Zimmerman, right, and his cousin Norman Zimmerman install a metal plate to prevent termite intrusion in a house for a hurricane-affected family in the Abita Nursery Subdivision near Covington, La.

COVINGTON, La. (Jan. 15, 2007)—“We were brought up to work, and to help our neighbor,” said plain-spoken Allen Zimmerman, a Mennonite farmer. That’s why he and five brothers plus assorted cousins and friends came from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Virginia to build houses with families in south Louisiana. These distant neighbors lost their homes to hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The 12 men shoveled fill dirt and prepared foundations for modular homes that were to arrive at the build site near Covington, La., in less than a week. Working alongside them was Michelle Muse, a single mother of two, who was putting in hours of sweat equity in preparation for homeownership.

“They work hard and steady,” said Tracy McElveen, construction supervisor for Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West affiliate.

“Most of us were raised on a farm; our daddies taught us to work with our hands. We build barns, build our own houses, so we’re used to construction,” Zimmerman said. “We don’t have insurance and when we have a disaster we step in to help our neighbors. If somebody’s barn burns down, we help build it back.”

The Mennonite Disaster Services and Christian Aid Ministries have recruited many church groups to help with the hurricane recovery. Several of the men’s sons had joined earlier teams and encouraged their fathers to make the trip. Zimmerman said his team wanted to come in the winter when fewer hands were needed to work the farms. They left wives, children and neighbors to care for the cattle and poultry.

Zimmerman felt great sympathy for the hurricane victims, remembering his own loss to hurricane Isabel, the worst storm of the 2003 hurricane season. His 84-year-old father and a sister were caught in the storm in a horse and buggy and were swept away in a rain-swollen river.