My Volunteer Experience with
All Hands and Hearts
in St. John, USVI

Joining the All Hands and Hearts volunteer alumni family was not something I knew I needed until it happened.

Before I tell you about my volunteer experience, let me backtrack a bit...

It was springtime, when new life abounds and the excitement of summer is right around the corner. But I was depressed.

I don't need to go into the nitty gritty of the details, so suffice it to say that my life was not going as I had planned (the best laid plans, right?) I was stuck in my own head, having quite the pity party I must say. 

I knew from previous experience that the best way for me to kick out the unwanted party guests of depression and anxiety was to stop thinking about myself and to throw myself into helping others.

Many scientific studies over the years have demonstrated that volunteers experience a “helper’s high” - a prolonged sense of calm, reduced stress, and greater self-worth after helping others - and overall life satisfaction is higher among those who volunteer.*

So now I knew what to do, but I didn't know the how until a fateful evening when the Apple News algorithm conspired to lead the way...

All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response

Scrolling aimlessly through my phone as usual one night, a news story popped up. The title caught the attention of my bleeding heart - "Would You Give Up Your Vacation to Rebuild a Community?"

I learned that our fellow U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were still trying to clean up from Hurricanes Irma and Maria that had hit 7 MONTHS earlier.

The U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma ©NBC News

If you are at all on social media or watch the news even briefly, you probably know about the Category 5 hurricanes that decimated the Caribbean within 2 weeks of each other in September of 2017.

You might have even seen coverage about the lack of response to Puerto Rico and the outrage that followed.

But how many of you heard ANY news stories about the U.S. Virgin Islands (which includes St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John)? Or any other Caribbean islands for that matter?

The governor of the USVI estimated that it would take $7.5 billion to rebuild after the storms. As that aid has been infamously slow in coming, non-profit organizations like All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response have stepped up to the plate to help.

My Response

As I sat there that night, two things dawned on me. One, the USVI and their needs were being largely ignored. And two, THIS was how I was going to dig my way out of my depression.

When you think of volunteering, do you believe solely the recipient benefits? Do you think volunteering (or even donating money and/or material goods) is simply a selfless act, sacrificial in nature?

I have come to understand that when I donate or volunteer, my intentions are good and pure, but that there is *always* some sort of personal benefit that accompanies it.

That may be as simple as making a new friend (or twenty) during that time, a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of satisfaction in helping others less fortunate, or even gaining experience and skills that I didn't have before.

I live in (relative) privilege. I have a good job, live in a house with clean drinking water, electricity, and a safe neighborhood. We have food to eat and have never known true hunger.

I could go into all the things we do without and gave up, but those things are my choice. If I wanted to, I have the ability to live a more "luxurious" life.

The people living in the Virgin Islands (and other places in the Caribbean) often don't have those same choices. 

They were struck by a natural disaster. Many don't have the resources to just pick up and move some place else. Their houses were destroyed and federal aid is slow in coming (an understatement). 

When I read about the work that All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) is doing, I knew that I had both the time and ability to help - and I felt a strong pull to do so.

Volunteering with All Hands and Hearts

All Hands and Hearts (St. John, USVI) is stationed at Caneel Bay Resort, which used to be one of the top resorts in the Virgin Islands. However, due to the massive storm damage, they had to close immediately and to this day (as of September 2018) remain closed to the public.

Caneel Bay Resort was also the major employer and major source of economy for the island. They employed over 400 people, which on an island of just 5000 people (some of whom are not working age), is a devastating blow to workers and job outlook.

Inside one of the offices on Caneel Bay St. John - July 2018

Upon my arrival, I got a quick tour of our base (Caneel Bay Resort is allowing AHAH to use some of its administration buildings that were not destroyed) and an orientation of the work that I would be doing for the two weeks that I was there.

Volunteers are not living a glamorous life, nor is it simply a "vacation."

We were housed in bunk beds or cots in large, dorm-like rooms and some volunteers chose to reside in tents on the grounds. 

Bunk beds in dormitory on St. John All Hands and Hearts base
View from inside my mosquito net tent placed on top of my bunk bed

Our days began at 6am and after a few days I got used to the routine: wake up and get dressed, head to kitchen to make myself some breakfast and pack my cold lunch for the day (food is provided on the days you work - Monday through Saturday), then pack up the trucks with tools that the team would need for the day.

We aimed to be on the job site by 7:30-8am every day - it's much easier to work earlier in the day before the heat and humidity became intense.

The actual work itself consisted of various tasks, depending on which site we were on. what needed to be done, and what your skill level is.

I can only speak to my own experience, because the work on other bases in different locations may be completely different, or you may be doing quite similar work.

On the first project I went to, we were removing debris, mucking and gutting, and deconstructing an older gentleman's house. He had lived on the island his whole life, and stayed during the storms. His house was completely destroyed by black mold and there was large amounts of debris (like metal sheet roofs, called CGI) scattered on his property.


The work day continued until about 3:30-4pm, with a lunch break midday of course. 

Safety first! Hard hats, eye protection, and respirator masks were provided and required to use due to the nature of the work.

I also got into a nice little evening routine after work as well: walk down to Honeymoon Beach (about a 15 minute walk from base camp) to soak off all the grime and let the salt water soothe my aches, come back to base and eat dinner around 6pm (which was cooked by an *amazing* local woman, who we all affectionately called "Ms. Colleen"), then socialize for a while before taking a cold shower at the end of the night.


I was in bed by about 8pm each night, completely exhausted but happy by the work that we had accomplished that day.

You'll end up dirty, sweaty, stinky, and exhausted by the end of the day - but there's no better feeling than knowing it was all for someone else!

Now What?

It has now been a full year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (and other Caribbean nations) and the work is not complete. 

All Hands and Hearts has committed to staying until at least the end of 2018 to finish what they've started. They are in the beginning phases of rebuilding, which is an exciting prospect for the homeowners and community.

I urge you to watch the video I made down below to see how you can help - every small donation, time spent volunteering, or even sharing this article or the video helps spread the word and gets awareness out there of what still needs to be done!

Resources

All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response: https://www.allhandsandhearts.org

*S. Meier, and A. Stutzer, “Is Volunteering Rewarding in Itself?” Economica, 75 no. 297 (2004): 39-59.

"Would You Give Up Your Vacation to Rebuild a Community?:" https://www.nbcnews.com/leftfield/video/would-you-give-up-your-vacation-to-rebuild-a-community-1249382467841

Have you volunteered with All Hands and Hearts? Or do you have any questions about what it was like? Comment down below and let me know!

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