As the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria loom, thousands of people are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones and working to put the pieces of their lives back together. 2017 was one of the most expensive and catastrophic hurricane seasons in U.S. history, with trillions of dollars in damage in the South and in the Caribbean. Almost two years later there is still much work to be done to rebuild homes and restore necessities like power and running water.
I came across a Facebook post about an organization called All Hands and Hearts that assists in rebuilding areas affected by natural disasters. I was intrigued at the thought of embarking on a journey that would not only give me a chance to give back, but would allow me to experience a part of the world that I had never seen. I signed up for the volunteer program in the United States Virgin Islands and was assigned to the base on St. John. I was both excited and nervous because a part of me wondered if I could even be of use (seeing as how I wasn’t really the “hard hat type”). But another part of me knew that I had been sent by a force greater than myself and had to follow through.
I, (like many people) enjoy visiting some of the areas affected by the hurricanes. They provide a sense of calm away from the hectic demands of the big city. But taking advantage of the warm weather, white sandy beaches and clear blue waters has always been the easy side of travel. Delving into an area and its culture and actually getting your hands dirty in an effort to rebuild it is a completely different story.
The work weeks were tough. Eight-hour days filled with cutting drywall, drilling, hammering, laying mud and sealing corners on a home previously torn apart. Mrs. Antoine (the homeowner) was forced to stay in her water cistern because that was the only livable area. The long days gave me a greater appreciation for construction workers and I was reminded of my late grandfather who did the job for decades. I felt empowered knowing that his spirit of hard work and service was with me.
Our living conditions at the base were primitive to say the least. No running water, no power and wooden bunks with air mattresses rigged with fans that not only helped to survive the heat, but to keep the mosquitos away while we were sleeping. This was far from the 4 and 5-star resorts I was used to. I found myself ready to complain and was reminded that while my time on the island was limited, this had been the daily reality for many of the natives for almost two years. That put it all back into perspective.
Despite the tragedy in USVI, the area and its people are resilient. While there is lingering damage, the islands still boast some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Restaurants that serve Caribbean delicacies like johnnycakes, salt fish and callaloo are coming back stronger than ever. And the residents (whether they were born there or came from another area) have not given up on making sure their home island and its history is preserved.
By the end of my stay, the home we’d worked on wasn’t nearly finished. However, I found comfort in knowing that my seemingly small contribution played a part in the bigger picture. It was also a great feeling to see the look on Mrs. Antoine’s face when she saw how things with her home were progressing.
This trip taught me that travel is different things to different people. Sometimes it’s solely about us, while other times it’s about the collective. Travel can still be just as enriching when we spend our time working to make others’ lives better. I learned that sometimes you just have to go where you feel you’ve been sent and God will give you the tools you need when you arrive. A spirit of love and service goes a long way. And finally, I now know that I am stronger than I give myself credit for. Never in a million years would I have thought that I’d take on an opportunity of this kind. But I’m surely a better person for it.