RVers of the Year

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January 22, 2011

Not content with enjoying a quiet retirement, Don and Marilyn Buller built an army of RVing volunteers

By John Sullaway
Good Sam Club Highways
January 2011

A makeshift campsite with no hookups or amenities in a neighborhood strewn with rubble isn’t the ideal place for an RV vacation. But for Don and Marilyn Buller, camping in their Auto-Mate fifth wheel in the midst of damaged homes and blocked-off streets is par for the course.

Since founding the RVing arm of the Mennonite Disaster Service in 2005, the Fresno, California, Good Sam members have traveled the country with other volunteers to rebuild homes devastated by fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

It’s just the latest chapter in altruism for the Bullers, who retired from state government careers in 1991.

“When we retired, we wanted to do something besides sit back at home and play dominoes,” says Don. “We wanted to use our abilities to help other people.” Don and Marilyn say they’re answering the call of their Mennonite faith, which emphasizes service to their fellow man.

The Bullers’ commitment to helping others inspired Good Sam members to name them the club’s 2010 RVers of the Year in online voting last fall. The couple edged out four other worthy candidates (see “Second to None” on page 24).

Six years after launching the MDS RV Program, the Bullers continue to act in a leadership role. “We have probably 50 to 55 RVers ready to go,” says Don, who also serves as vice chairperson on the Northern California MDS board.

The Bullers’ work has taken them to the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast, fire-ravaged San Diego County and other disaster hot spots. Equipped with well-stocked tool trailers, trained MDS RV volunteers are ready for just about anything, says Don, even the feared Big One that earthquake experts predict will one day jolt California.

Like its Akron, Pennsylvania-based parent organization, the MDS RV Program enlists volunteers from all Christian faiths. Members must agree to work on a project for at least a month, six hours per day, four days a week. Experience isn’t necessary, although every project has a director with a background in construction.

“Women are encouraged to work alongside men,” adds Don. “We have enough qualified people on each job to teach them.”

Don says that growing up in a Mennonite family on a farm in Merced County, California, gave him a good grounding in construction. While working in Sacramento after attending Pacific University, Don met Marilyn, who subsequently joined the Mennonite faith. Following the tenets of their religion, they sought careers that would involve public service.

“State employment was an opportunity to help our fellow man,” says Don. During his government career, he worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Employment Development Department and the Chancellor’s Office of California Community Colleges.

Marilyn, who majored in education, also worked in California government, primarily with the Employment Development Department.

As retirement loomed, the couple purchased a truck and trailer so they’d be paid off by the time they were ready to travel. Then they began volunteering for the

Mobile Missionary Assistance Program, an interdenominational Christian organization made up of RVers who travel the country and build or renovate churches, Christian campgrounds and other faith-based facilities. The Bullers also began volunteering for the Mennonite Disaster Service, which has helped with disaster recovery for 60 years.

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Bullers saw a need for a group of RV volunteers who could arrive at disaster sites with their own shelter. Their proposal for such a group was approved by the MDS leadership, and the MDS RV Program was born. Working with fellow volunteers, the Bullers traveled to Mobile, Alabama, and went to work repairing residences.

“We set up camp in the backyard of a homeowner,” recalls Don.

More projects would follow in places like Hackberry and Johnson Beach, Louisiana, Deweyville, Texas, and San Bernardino, California. Through contributions and recruitment, the MDS RV Program has grown to keep pace with demand, with five fully stocked tool trailers strategically deployed across the continent.

“The cargo trailers have table saws, pneumatic nailing machines, chop saws, saber saws, hand saws, power saws and a large number of hammers‚ÄĒeverything you need to build a house,” says Don.

The program also uses two dedicated office trailers equipped with computers and filing cabinets that are vital to handling the clerical tasks of tracking materials and donations and planning meetings.

Knowing how to handle a hammer and stay organized are only part of the story, says Don. MDS volunteers work closely with local communities to make sure help goes to the right places. While Don assumes the role as project manager, working on getting building supplies and organizing labor, Marilyn takes on office-administration duties, which entail keeping track of expenses and donations and managing the paperwork that comes with government aid.

Identifying the best recipients of the aid is crucial. “We provide services for people caught between the cracks or who don’t have insurance or some other snafu keeps them from having funds to rebuild a house,” says Don.

The local community also plays a big role in the success of a project. In 2009, while rebuilding a house in California’s San Bernardino County, local church members donated a new clothes washer for the RV Program’s office trailer.

“They also provided garbage service,” adds Don. “We try to leverage the local community whenever we can.”

When they’re not traveling to distressed communities, the Bullers spend time with their extended family of three children, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Don, an accordion enthusiast, looks forward to a trip this summer to the Pacific Northwest to attend two accordion festivals. The couple also plans to say hello to fellow Good Sam Club members at the 2011 Rally, July 14 through 17 in Redmond, Oregon. If you attend the Rally, look for the Bullers and be sure to offer your congratulations.

To find out more about the RVing branch of the Mennonite Disaster Service, go online to www.mds.mennonite.net

Second to None
All of our RVer of the Year nominees deserve recognition

Marty Shenkman, a New Jersey estate attorney, turned to RVing when his wife, Patti, was stricken with multiple sclerosis. The couple traded air travel for an Airstream pulled by a Ford Expedition. Now Patti has comfort and medication 24/7, and Marty gives seminars to attorneys and accountants on estates for the seriously ill in exchange for donations to charity.


Photographer Holt Webb uses his lens to preserve America’s vanishing treasures. Traveling in a motorhome powered by vegetable oil, Holt has documented endangered places like the oil-ravaged Gulf Coast. He’s received the support of a number of major conservation organizations.
Nelson and Paula DiGennaro are racing fans whose love for the track helps save animals. The RVers raised $20,000 for the Society for the Improvement of Conditions for Stray Animals through their annual Red Dog Racers Auction in Dayton, Ohio. The DiGennaros obtain drivers’ autographs and souvenirs and auction them off for the cause.
RVing’s a family affair for Good Sam’s New Jersey state director, JT Bolger. The father of four founded the Garden State’s Haulin Highlanders Good Sam chapter, made up of young families. He and his brother, John, are trustees of the Bolger Foundation, which focuses on community improvement.

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