Back at the end of January I spent a little less than two weeks volunteering in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands with All Hands and Hearts (AHAH), an organization dedicated to long term disaster relief recovery. AHAH currently operates sites in Mexico, Texas, Florida, North Carolina, USVI, Puerto Rico, Nepal, and, most recently, Mozambique. St. John is still operating, but the St. Thomas program ran out of funding at the end of April and is no longer operating, which is a shame because there is still so much work to be done there.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in this program for a few reasons. When I signed up, they were offering free round trip flights if you were staying two weeks or more. (They are still offering this for Texas and North Carolina, so check out their website!). There was no cost to stay on base, meals were provided, transportation to and from work sites was also included. There was no reason for me not to spend my time down there helping; they made it as easy as possible. (Side note: I’m trying to travel this entire year without spending a dime on accommodations or airfare. So far, so good!)
Admittedly, I was nervous going into a new large group volunteer scenario. Unless I can handpick a group of people, I’m going to dislike at least 10% it. It’s just my nature and I completely own this. As I become more of an old crab, the list of characteristics I dislike in people seems to grow on a daily basis which is why it was so confusing to realize that in this ever revolving group of roughly 50 people, I really liked every single one of them. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m more accustomed to group travel and the various personalities that can be in conflict when forced to work together as a group or if they’re all just really great people with vast social awareness. I’m going to go with that last one and believe that I’m still a bit of a jerk.
The majority of volunteers on base with me were made up of two different types of people: post-college, mid 20s, unsure what they wanted to do next or young retirees who cannot sit still and love to travel. Most of those people had given up a month or more of their time. The rest of the people, like me, were there on vacation from their full time jobs wishing that they could also spend a month or more on a gorgeous Caribbean island working outside when it is the dead of winter back home.
Our base was a condemned old school in the Frenchtown area, an area I didn’t get to explore until one of my last nights there, but is super cute. There were wine bars, margarita shacks, and a cute little Eiffel Tower.
I’m not much of a nightlife person so most nights were spent on base reading one of three books I brought while laying in a hammock. I had intended to completely unplug while I was down there, but there was so much downtime and, with most people on little to no income, many people chose to spend their nights on base playing board games, trivia, and exercising.
Base was a well-oiled machine. Everyday there were volunteers responsible for cleaning base, running errands, and helping to cook dinner while others were working on their sites. The food was incredible. The first few days I was there I was volunteering at Youth Academy, a building that was in the process of being converted into an afterschool center for middle school aged youth. It boasted a karate studio, kitchen, music studio, and exercise area. During my time there I helped install and paint cabinet doors, hang doors, install doorknobs, and paint the walls, doorframes, and baseboards.
My last two days of volunteering were spent painting the exterior of Ms. Green’s house. She lost her roof in Hurricane Irma and her home became flooded and completely uninhabitable during Hurricane Maria. Thankfully, some of her neighbors took her in while AHAH gutted the inside of her home and got to work.
When I arrived, the new roof had been completed and the walls were framed, but it was bare bones. Ms. Green would come by around lunch time everyday and sit in a metal folding chair in her “kitchen.” She was a sweet lady of few words and hated the neighborhood cat, Chloe.
Now, I did not actually try to steal the cat, but I made my intentions known only to learn that I was fourth in line for adopting/stealing this cat. She was a gorgeous, tiny brown tabby that, unlike my cat, never meowed, and let me pick her up and carry her around like a baby. No one knew if she actually belonged to anyone, but we know she did not belong to Ms. Green.
Although I had dreams of hopping a boat over to the British Virgin Islands (because visiting Beef Island sounds awesome in name alone), having only one weekend there made day tripping and exploring the sites challenging. On Saturday, a group of us took off for Water Island. A beautiful little island located a ten minute ferry ride away from Crown Bay. We made it as far as gorgeous Honeymoon Beach and spent the day there.
A few of the volunteers had brought their snorkels and spent the afternoon hunting sea turtles (and finding one!). I stayed on the beach and read my book. I love the ocean, but I respect the ocean so much that I usually don’t go in it. One of the volunteers had brought a decent snorkel that I used to check out some fishies. This was equally super cool and terrifying as fish have hilarious side eye and I thought I saw a shark and I’m not the best swimmer. The coolest part was as I came close to shore I swam through a large school of tiny fish. It tickled.
Pretty good for my first trip to the Caribbean!
People ask me why I do these volunteer trips and choose to work during my time off. It does not feel like work to me. I sit at a desk for 35 hours a week so the opportunity to work outside is a refreshing change of pace. I’ve been at my job for so long that I earn roughly seven weeks a year of earned leave, far more than most working people I know, so it feels like I should be doing something positive with that time for someone. I love volunteering. I am an incredible fortunate person. I know that if something were to happen to my home I have friends and family that would be rushing to help me in whatever way they could, just like I would for them. Selfishly, I love exploring a new place through people. When I first started making volunteer trips to New Orleans, I never imagined I would have felt such a strong connection to a city that parties and flashes boobies 24/7. If I had visited New Orleans as a tourist, I probably would have hated it, but knowing the rich history, interacting with locals that have lived there for generations, and drinking drive thru daiquiris was more than enough to establish a connection between myself and the city.
If you have ever wanted to take a volunteer trip, please talk to me. I’m happy to share what I have learned and talk to you about how you can get involved. It is rewarding and a wonderful way to visit a new place, but more importantly there are people that need you, your heart, and your skills, either seasoned or in development, to help them get back what they have lost.