Volunteering with All Hands and Hearts In the US Virgin Islands
In November, my Dad and I spent 16 days working as disaster recovery volunteers in the US Virgin Islands. In the fall of 2017, the islands were hit by back to back category 5 hurricanes within just weeks of each other. It is estimated that 97% of the buildings on St. Thomas suffered damage. While many of the tourist destinations were quickly rebuilt, there is a different story as you leave the cruise ship terminal and head into the hills where the locals live. My Dad and I chose to spend our time there because we know the simple value that a hard working pair of hands can add to a project. We were willing to get down and dirty, working long days and living in less than comfortable positions in an effort to give someone else a fresh start.
I've decided to start with sharing the story of our base life while in St. Thomas. One of the biggest assumptions that people made when we told them about our trip was that we would be staying in cushy hotels on the beach, eating Caribbean lobster and sipping fruity drinks. I won't lie... one night I sought out the two latter items, splurging on a meal out at a restaurant where everyone assumed we had taxied over from the cruise terminal. But most of the time, we were found living in a condemned school, sleeping in bunk beds nailed together from scrap 2x4s and plywood, a bug net draped over an air mattress, if you were one of the lucky ones who scored them before the other incoming volunteers. We were fortunate to have running water which allowed for cold showers in the moldy locker room where you were careful not to drop your clean-ish shorts into the 3 inches of standing water. Before you emerged from the shower, having washed off the sweat of a hard day's work, you were sure to coat yourself down with as much deet as you could find in an effort to battle the relentless mosquitoes. Meals were served family style, some 50ish volunteers and employees gathered around picnic tables eating salad with spoons because there were never enough forks. Our base had an absolutely incredible chef who worked hard each day to feed us and try to keep us energized for the next day's work. After dinner we played trivia, watched movies, or set off for rum punch at the local watering hole. When lights out was called at 9:30 each night, we were grateful to crawl into our bunks and lie under the warm air of a box fan, powered by a generator which would attempt to keep us cool enough through the night. The morning began around 6:30 as we volleyed for our turn at the sink, the coffee pot, or with the jelly for our lunch's PBJ. By 7 am we had our assignments and were loaded into vans and driven off to the day's work site where we spend the day doing shoveling belongings in homes that had sat exposed, building roofs, sanitizing mold, rebuilding day care centers... generally whatever we could do to provide someone with a better life. We'd wrap up around 4 pm, heading back for the nightly meeting to discuss the day's events, new projects, and the stories of the volunteers who made up our unique nexus.
I wanted to be sure to paint an accurate picture of what life was like on an All Hands and Hearts base. It's hard. It's dirty. It's hot. But it is also hopeful, and happy, and friendly. There is laughter and teasing, there is hugging and crying. There are stories shared from the day's experiences in between arguments over who stole the best boombox. There is always someone who wants to walk to the grocery store with you to pick up a bag of M&Ms for your lunch box. There are groups gathering for afternoon fitness, book clubs, a walk to the beach, meditation and card games. There are jazz festivals and local high school football games and groups heading off to church. There are constantly friendships forming and relationships strengthening among the volunteers. There are visits from homeowners dropping off cookies to say thank you and there are ice cream parties at a completed project. There are lessons on how to use tools, how to perform first aid, and unintentional lessons on how to be a better human. Everyone there has one thing in common... they cared enough to sign up. We were brought together with the simple goal of trying to make a difference. Life in a disaster zone is not for everyone. Had the conditions been worse, it might not have been for me. But as it was, it was perfect. I loved almost every single minute of my time with All Hands and Hearts and I'm already thinking of a way that I can work with them again. I can't say enough about the organization, the teams that I was a part of, or the incredible people that came into my life as a result of this experience.