History of All Hands and Heart
As I was perusing Facebook, I came across a post that discussed volunteer opportunities with an organization called All Hands and Hearts. I was interested to learn more about who they were and how I could sign up to volunteer.
Co-Founders David Campbell of All Hands and Petra Nemcova of Happy Hearts Fund played a huge role in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Petra and her partner found themselves in the middle of the disaster. Unfortunately, her fiance passed after being swept away by strong ocean currents. Ms. Nemcova survived by hanging on to a palm tree for 8 hours before being rescued. Although, Mr. Campbell was not directly affected he felt compelled to assist in the worst recording natural disaster with the death toll reaching up to 250,000 fatalities.
In 2017 during the wake of the Nepal disaster, the 2 powerhouse organizations decided to join forces which resulted in All Hands and Hearts-Smart Response. Their goal is to respond when a natural disaster first occurs and remain during the recovery process. First, they address the immediate needs of the community and then they assist with rebuilding homes and schools.
All Hands and Hearts is currently serving in various locations across the world. Domestically they are located in Florida, Texas, North Carolina, US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas and St. John), and Puerto Rico. Internationally they are based in Dominica, Mexico, and Nepal.
How do I Sign up?
In order to sign up, go to the website and fill out the volunteer application. 1 day after completing the application, I received my acceptance letter to volunteer in St. John Virgin Islands. It is to be noted that it can take up to 14 days to receive a response.
How long can I stay?
Most people stay at least 2 weeks but you can decide to stay longer. Many of the volunteers who stay for a long time eventually apply to become part of the paid staff.
What should I bring
- Mosquito net
- A small pillow and a sheet
- Water bottle
- Lunch Bag
- Hiking boots- I bought my boots from Big 5 Sporting Goods for $30.
- Air Mattress- You can purchase a mattress in Kmart after arriving on St. Thomas.
- Gloves- I used gloves that were left behind by previous volunteers but I wished I would have purchased my own prior to arriving.
- Cash- Expenses for additional food, drinks and exploring neighboring islands such as St. Thomas or the British Virgin Islands.
- Thin shorts/pants- I brought thin capri pants but they were too hot to wear. I wore shorts the remainder of the time due to extreme heat.
Sometimes volunteers leave behind used items but they are not always in the best condition. For example, a gently used air mattress may have a slow leak that is not visible to the eye. I learned the hard way when I woke up in the middle of the night with a depleted mattress and my body hurting from the thin piece of wood underneath me that held the bed together.
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Depending on the location that you choose, free flights are available for residential volunteers. As a residential volunteer, I committed to serving 2 weeks in the US Virgin Islands.
I took a plane on South West Airlines from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico where I stayed overnight. In Puerto Rico, I took a Cape Air flight to St. Thomas. Prior to arriving, I was not aware that the aircraft only had 9 seats. Needless to say, I closed my eyes the entire flight and prayed they we made it safely.
How to arrive at Caneel Bay on St. John
I took a $20 taxi from the St. Thomas airport to Red Hook Ferry. I purchased a $12 ferry ticket that would transport me to St. John Cruz Bay. Once on St. John Island, I hailed an $8 taxi to Caneel Resort Bay.
Caneel Resort Bay has operated since 1956 and employed over 400 islanders before the devastation of hurricane Irma. Despite the resort not opening up to the public it has allowed All Hands and Hearts to use its facilities as a base for volunteers. Unfortunately, Caneel Bay does not have running water or electricity. Due to no running water, you will take a bucket bath using potable water located on the base. In regards to the electricity, the generator comes on at 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. During this time you should utilize the fans due to extreme heat and charge up electronics such as cell phone. It is to be noted that not all sites are the same and this is only my experience on St. John.
If you prefer privacy you can sleep outside in a tent. If you would like to sleep inside, you will be placed in a dorm-like environment with other volunteers. Make sure to bring an air mattress, this will go on top of your cot on the wooden bed. Make sure to grab a bottom bunk if it becomes available. Having a bottom bunk will make your life easier especially if you have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I have an embarrassing story about trying to get out of the top bunk while rushing to the bathroom.
What does a typical day look like?
6:00 a.m. Wake up, get dressed (shirts are provided) and go to the dining area to fix breakfast and lunch.
7:00 a.m. Find your assigned team and jeep. You can be a driver as long as you are at least 26 years old and pass a driving test. If you become a driver, you will transport drivers to work sites and can sign out jeeps if you need to go into town. Be prepared to drive on the opposite of the road.
7:15 a.m. Stop at the local market for ice and snacks.
7:30 a.m.Arrive at the work site, this could include a house, school, boat and or campsite.
8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. Team leaders will inform volunteers of goals for the day and assign a various task to the team.
The first couple of days, I was assigned to demolish a house which included muck, gut, and clearing debris.
I was then moved to a national park campsite to help build tents for other future volunteers.During my last week, I worked on the inside of the house to install wall panels, remove bathroom tile, and paint bedrooms.
12:00 p.m. Lunch will be provided by the organization. They provide items such as sandwiches, fruit, carrots, and granola bars. You have the option of packing leftovers for lunch or buying hot food from Starfish Market.
1:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m. Resume work.
5:00 p.m Arrive back on base to unload the jeeps.
5:30 p.m. Be on time for the nightly meeting. During this time, the team discusses the progress of each site and assignment for the next day.
6:00 p.m. A hot meal is prepared by the cook Mrs. Collen.
After dinner, people will volunteer to clean up dinner dishes, charge batteries and fill up water containers.
Free time: Most people will go down to Caneel Bay to relax on the docks. Some nights the staff will organize activities such as chalk walk or auction to raise additional funds for the organization.
On Saturdays, you have the day to relax.
Sunday is a free day. My first weekend. I took the ferry and went to St. Thomas to explore the island.
Pros and Cons of volunteering
Due to the tropical climate, it is a hot all year long. As a result of the heat, I sweated profusely while working. I suggest wearing a scarf to prevent sweat from dripping in your face and wear shorts to keep cool.
I hate mosquitos but they love me. I wore mosquito repellant every day but it did not help to prevent the mosquitos from marking their territory on my body. Next time I travel, I will try Skin so Soft from Avon and odorless garlic pills to reduce the number of mosquito bites. You can also buy an electronic mosquito swatter, which kills the mosquitos on contact.
Adjusting to no electricity and running water will be difficult. Having limited electricity will force you to interact with others and allow you to disconnect from electronics. Lack of running water will make you appreciate hot showers. There are hot showers at Honeymoon beach but they shut off at 4:00 p.m. daily.
After your first week of working you may experience back and feet pain. You may even question your sanity. I’m going to be transparent. I thought about quitting but I’m grateful that I didn’t give up.
Sometimes you may have the opportunity to work directly with the homeowners. Interacting with the homeowners gives you a different perspective of the tragic hurricane that resulted in the loss of both residents and homes. I had the opportunity to work with Ms. Christian who is a mother to 4 boys. Her youngest son is autistic. Having an autistic son and dealing with the loss of a home is very traumatic. Knowing that All Hands and Hearts can assist with her home makes me feel proud to be a volunteer.
People from all walks of life come to volunteer. I’m always interested to hear how and why people sign up. I volunteered because I had extra time after being laid off from my job. Students volunteer during school breaks, some are experiencing life transitions, and others simply want to give back. Despite the reasons for how we ended up as volunteers, we came for the purpose of lending a helping hand.
I believe that I have made life long friends. When you work, sleep, eat and live together, a bond is created. Even after leaving St. John I have kept in contact with my new friends via telephone calls and text messages. I now consider my new friends an extended part of my family.
I learned a new skill set. I have never worked in the area of construction. After volunteering I can now add construction to my list of skills on my resume. I now know how to use different power tools, paint, clear debris and successfully build tents.
I am forever grateful to the staff on St. John. They run the base camp like a well-oiled machine. They were super patient, supportive and encouraging with people like me who have no experience. When I thought I was not doing a good job, they would remind me that I was indeed an asset to the team.
The island of St. John is beautiful. It’s surrounding with some of the greatest beaches in the world. I love the beach and hope to return to the island to further explore.
How can I support All Hands and Hearts?
- Sign up to become a volunteer
- Purchase tools from Amazon
- After researching volunteer programs, many organizations charge a fee to volunteer. Donate money to All Hands and Hearts to keep the cost of the program free to volunteers.
I love to travel and volunteer. All Hands and Hearts was a great way to combine my passion to give back and quench my thirst for wanderlust. Do you volunteer while traveling? Would you be interested in volunteering or donating funds to this wonderful organization?
Update: It is to be noted that St. John location is closed but there are still sites open. Please check the website for more details. ***
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