Ephrata, PA

#VanLife with a purpose

Tara and John-Michael's journey to volunteer in all 50 states led them to MCC's Material Resources Center

When I looked outside the window of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast office on a Monday morning in late April, I watched a dusty, unmarked 12-passenger van pull cautiously into the parking lot of the Material Resources Center (MRC) in Ephrata, Pa. Dried mud showed on the sides of the navy blue vehicle, and the windows were blacked out with fabric.

I had to admit to myself that it was quite different from the typical vehicles that our MRC volunteers drive. And if MRC volunteers do show up in a 12-passenger van, the exterior is usually clean, marked with the name of a school, and full of bright-eyed students chattering excitedly about the day of service ahead of them.

Should I have been apprehensive upon seeing this suspicious-looking vehicle approach my workplace? Hardly.

You see, a few weeks prior to this day, a colleague told me excitedly that a married couple named Tara and John-Michael Elmore would be volunteering at the MRC that day. This was part of their yearlong journey to volunteer for causes and organizations in all 50 states in the U.S. When I heard that they were dedicating an entire year to living out of their 12-passenger van and giving their time to serve at nonprofits and community organizations across the country, I was fascinated. I said to myself, I must meet these people, blacked out van windows and all.

The Elmore’s once had what one could consider “real jobs.” So how did they end up volunteering here at the MRC and living in a 60-square-foot space inside a van they named “Harrison”? It all began in 2013, when they attempted a dream of theirs, which was to walk across the United States. Yes, you read that right—one foot in front of the other.

On their attempted walk across the U.S., Tara and John-Michael used a modified running stroller to push their gear. They trekked all the way to Illinois before they stopped due to lingering injuries. “We loved the experience… [It] changed us and inspired us.”

After returning home to Indiana, they decided to sell their house and minimize. Beginning in 2016, while living on the Oregon coast, they started planning and saving money in order to embark on a journey to explore the nation and experience all 50 states in the spirit of intentionality, simplicity and service.

Tara says, “Volunteering is very important to us…we still feel we owe [a lot] to all those wonderful, caring people that put their faith in strangers and helped us out when we were walking across America. We felt this would be a way to pay it forward (as many of them would kindly instruct us to do) and to also raise awareness for causes and organizations that are doing so many wonderful things in communities across the U.S.”

Out of many causes and organizations in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Elmore’s chose to volunteer at the MCC MRC in Ephrata, upon recommendation by Nate and Kate Grieser, friends and supporters of MCC who live in Lancaster, Pa. Tara says, “I researched MCC and was inspired by all the work you do with displaced people around the world, [fulfilling] basic needs like water, food, and shelter. To reach out and help others in disadvantaged areas is work that is invaluable.”

“This volunteer opportunity [was] unique,” Tara says. She explains that five years earlier in March 2013, when she and John-Michael were attempting to walk across the U.S., they walked through Lancaster. “As we were walking, we ran into a young couple that was heading to have dinner with friends of theirs…They invited us inside to meet their friends, a group which included Nate and Kate Grieser. That night there was a snow storm and the Grieser’s told us that if the weather was bad and we needed a place to stay, we could use their guest bedroom.” She continues, “This is what I am talking about when I say, ‘kindness from strangers.’”

Fast forward five years and Tara announced on Facebook that she and John-Michael would be starting their journey to volunteer in all 50 states. Upon learning this, Kate reached out to them and offered them a place to park their van in Lancaster. Tara says, “We loved the idea of getting to have a reunion of sorts and we asked them if there was an organization that they would recommend as a way to ‘pay it forward.’” The Griesers recommended the MRC, which welcomes an average of 12,000 volunteers through its doors every year.

"To reach out and help others in disadvantaged areas is work that is invaluable."

- Tara Elmore

In good faith in Nate and Kate’s recommendation, Tara and John-Michael pulled their navy blue van into the parking lot of the MRC, where I met them on that cloudy Monday morning. First things first, I insisted upon taking a look at Harrison, their 60-square-foot home on wheels that, in its former life, was a delivery van for the Seattle Times. As an avid follower and observer of the “#VanLife” movement on social media, the outdoors- and adventure-lover in me was stoked to emerge from my cubicle and see all the ways they outfitted their van for their yearlong volunteer adventure.

John-Michael and Tara recycle books using a machine that cuts the spine off donated books, making it easier to separate the covers from the recyclable paper inside. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

The Elmore’s began their day at the MRC as many visitors and volunteer individuals and groups do—they went on a tour of the bustling warehouse. On the tour, they learned about MCC’s relief work in partnership with churches and organizations in over 50 countries around the world. They heard stories of how the seemingly ordinary work they do here at the MRC brings hope and dignity to individuals and families who are in desperate need of relief.

Tara separated the covers of donated books from the recyclable paper inside, which we sell to brokers who recycle the paper. This extra income helps cover shipping costs when we send containers of relief kits, comforters, hygiene kits and more to our partners across the world who request them. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas


They also inspected comforters for quality assurance, then folded and baled the colorful, lovingly handmade blankets for shipment. All comforters that arrive at the MRC are created and donated by individuals and groups or sewn and knotted by volunteers at the MRC.MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

Tara and John-Michael’s day of service at the MRC in Pennsylvania is their 18th of 50 states in which they’ll visit and volunteer. They say with a smile, “We will drive to 49 states and then fly to Hawaii. It’s cost-prohibitive to ferry the van over.”

At this point, you may be wondering—Why would someone willingly give up their home and a steady job for a year to live in a van and work for free? Tara says, “We want to encourage people to volunteer their time in some way to any organization that inspires them and hope by doing this journey it will show how many different types of volunteering opportunities there are out there.”

For me, meeting the Elmore’s and witnessing firsthand their dedication to service and simple living has given me pause. I don’t often meet people with such selfless dedication to volunteer work. Much less, I don't meet people who are willing to sell their home and most of their possessions in order to extend themselves beyond their comfort zone to serve others in a way that is so countercultural to most of U.S. society.

Their greatest joy in volunteering across the country, John-Michael and Tara say, is “getting to meet the people who work every day to help those in need in their communities…We are happy any time we can work to help heal the earth.”MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

As soon as I met the Elmore’s, their thoughtfulness, positivity and humility were apparent. The encounter made me wonder two things. First, am I hardcore enough for 60-square-foot #VanLife? Secondly, and more importantly, I pondered, in what ways can I, too, mold my life and daily decisions to serve and inspire others in my community to do good? I have a feeling that this question will stick with me for a long time.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” –Matthew 6:19-21 (NRSV)

Want to learn more about #VanLife and Tara and John-Michael’s pursuit of experiences, time and interactions over the pursuit of stuff? Follow Tara and John-Michael Elmore’s blog at www.TheMoreList.com.

To find out how you can get out of your comfort zone to serve with MCC, visit mcc.org/serve. Or, to volunteer at the MCC Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., call (717) 733-2847 or email EastCoastMRC@mcc.org.