Archive for the ‘volunteering’ Category

I’m not ready to be home right now. I’m writing this post from my bedroom in NYC, but I’m not ready to be here. I arrived yesterday a little before midnight, one week earlier than planned. The reason, of course, is COVID-19.

On Thursday, March 12th, five of us AHAH volunteers were scrubbing the mold out of a house in Marsh Harbour. We paused at noon for our lunch break and Aileen, one of the program managers, stopped by with bad news. As of that morning, All Hands and Hearts was suspending all operations worldwide for two months. Volunteers at all 14 AHAH sites worldwide had 48-72 hours to change flights, pack up, and head out.

AHAH released a statement about the decision. At its core:

The communities we work within are affected by disasters and are oftentimes lacking the infrastructure necessary to address a public health crisis like the coronavirus. We must take caution to not potentially expose these vulnerable communities to the virus through accidental transmission from our teams. 

Full statement here:

After Aileen left we sat there in shock. Volunteers had been working on this house for over a week, but we were only at the scrubbing stage. Without vacuuming and spraying, and with no volunteers working for two months, there was a high chance mold would grow back. We wanted to finish, but scrubbing was pointless on that day, so we packed up the equipment and waited for a truck to bring us to base.

The house

Meanwhile, AHAH teams at other sites made similar decisions; those who were mucking and gutting and those who were spraying went into overdrive and worked well past the end of our work hours to get the jobs done. The rest of us returned to base and joined the chaos of searching for new flights, cancelling old ones, and moving a huge amount of lumber into the Sprung for storage. The staff wanted to get volunteers out within 24 hours if possible, which meant endless goodbyes and a lot of packing up the entire base very quickly.

Over 1100 pieces of wood

I’m not sure what else to say right now. I’m bummed to not be there. There were no Coronavirus cases in the Bahamas and I wish there was a way that AHAH could have stopped accepting new volunteers but let those of us who were already there stay. I understand the logic behind the decision they made but I wish it didn’t have to be this way, not just for the Bahamas site but all AHAH locations. In Puerto Rico, the scheduled end date of the program is two weeks from now, so they’d been working from the start with the plan to finish everything by the end of March. Now they are scrambling to get as much done as possible by Monday, knowing they will not complete some of their intended work and will not be returning to finish. It’s a tough situation, and I imagine that the AHAH board spent a long time thinking about this decision.

Thursday night was my last night on base, so I stood up and presented a rap I was going to share as my leaving speech next week. I felt like a superstar with all the cheers and applause and hugs I got after I finished. Music is truly powerful and I think I helped lift everyone’s spirits that evening. I’ll post the lyrics here and update this entry with an mp3 link when I record it (update: Here’s the audio).

Just stand (All Hands) and start (and Hearts)
and take the time to make a mark
(your mark)
With hands
(All Hands) and hearts (and Hearts)
break the mold and do your part
(your part)

One day at a time we get the job done
With your hands and mine we work hard and have fun
Grab your safety glasses, gloves and a hat
Purple shirts by the masses, we step up to bat

Sleep beneath a mosquito net
Rise before dawn, yawn, and get set
Make breakfast and lunch, maybe PB&J
Take it to the trucks, muck and gut, start the day

Just stand…

Roll off to site, pass a bunch of destruction
To make the world right we gotta work on reconstruction
of houses and schools, and global attitudes as well
Global warming isn’t cool and it’s getting hot as

Hello folks, let’s begin the daily meeting
New face at the base, come up and give us a greeting
Let’s check out the board and talk about sites
Big ups before sup, and events for the night

Just stand…

Now it’s time for dinner made by hard-working cooks
Every meal’s a winner, tastes as good as it looks
There’s a line but it’s fine, one for veggie, one for meat
Fill a plate and dine, it’s a meet and greet

Check out the board to find your new location
Scrub, vacuum, spray, lord, I need a vacation
But really I’m kidding cuz I’m proud to be here
Living life to the fullest as an All Hands volunteer

Just stand…

Big ups to the crew, that’s you, for what we do
Even with Coronavirus our commitment is true
Now we may be leaving but we know it’s not the end
So keep on believing that we’ll meet up again

Soon we’ll write another chapter and I’ll see you in the rafters
Giving residents hope so they live happily ever after
Everybody in this place is smashing houses in the face
Keep on living life right, and you have a safe flight.

Carolyn Stallard, March 12, 2020

I wasn’t ready to say goodbye, I wasn’t ready to come back to NYC, but here I am, and I’m grateful that I get to have this roof over my head and a healthcare system that is functional enough to help out those who do become symptomatic with this virus. It’s ironic in a way; in the Bahamas there is ample hand sanitizer and TP and almost no talk of the virus, but lots of people are living in shelters or in mold-infested houses with broken roofs. Here in NY, stores are out of hand sanitizer and TP and there is endless talk of the virus, but people have houses with working roofs that they can self-quarantine in. Which reality would you choose?

Speaking of reality, as a volunteer said in his exit speech, “the future is here, just not evenly distributed.” I’d love to believe that what I was responding to in the Bahamas was an abnormal disaster, but I know better. I am already conscientious about my carbon footprint, but seeing the intense level of destruction in Marsh Harbour even six months post-Dorian makes me want to be even more conscientious about my environmental impact. One day that level of destruction will be even more routine than it’s already becoming, and I want to be able to say I did my part to keep the climate in check. Are you doing yours?

When I volunteer for things like this people tell me I’m amazing, but as a volunteer reminded us in her exit speech, what we are doing shouldn’t be considered amazing; it should be normal. Instead of telling me I do amazing things, find a way to do similar things, even if on a smaller scale. We all make an impact.

I’ll conclude with photos I haven’t shared in previous posts. Thanks for reading.

This is an area in Marsh Harbour that was known as The Mud, where many Haitian immigrants and Haitian-Bahamians lived in shanty houses. After the storm, the area was bulldozed and fenced off so that the shantytown would not be rebuilt. Read more about the area and its history here.
Boats *in* the water at Hope Town. Very different than Marsh Harbour.
The Hope Town lighthouse we swam to on our day off.
My Sunday adventure buddies: Maeve, Kiley, and Tyler.

Interested in supporting hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas? Contribute to my fundraiser for All Hands and Hearts here. Thank you!

Monday evening! Time is flying! I’ve been balancing volunteering, grading, and socializing pretty well, but time is passing incredibly quickly. Two of the closer friends I’ve made here are leaving tomorrow, and some others are leaving later this week. When I met them it seemed like we had ages left. How is this possible???

Here are some highlights from the past few days: 

I went to actual houses three times! The rest of the time has been at CAPS, mostly in the rafters, but one day I was the queen of the sledgehammer and the sawsall (a saw) and destroyed the cabinets of a classroom closet. I felt like a badass that day. 

Last week when I was at a house I got to do the “gut” portion of a “muck and gut” followed by “QC,” which stands for “quality control.” “Mucking” is when you go through the contents of a house and start cleaning it out, get rid of personal stuff, etc. “Gutting” is when you essentially deconstruct the house, pulling out all the debris, taking down drywall, etc. “Quality control” is when you finish pulling out debris and take out the screws and nails sticking out of the wood, sweep up, and get the place ready for scrubbing (the first stage of mold control). Since AHAH is working on the response stage of disaster management here in the Bahamas, we do a lot of mucking and gutting, scrubbing, vacuuming, and spraying. There is also a roofing team, but the majority of us are gutting and scrubbing. 

Before and after breaking apart a moldy wall.

Today (Monday) was the coolest day. I was on a team of just five, all women, ages 19, 21, 31, 31, and 68. This was truly the most badass team I’ve been on yet; we were breaking apart the drywall, wood paneling, ceiling, and tiling of a house and we were seriously all on fire. The 21-year-old and 19-year-old were the Team Leader and Assistant Team Leader, respectively, and I was impressed with how much they knew about this construction (or deconstruction) work. Likewise, the 68-year-old, Merelise, worked with the same energy as the rest of us. My fellow 31-year-old, Val, took apart an entire bathroom in record time, and I took apart all the walls and trim of an entire room. We were seriously a rockstar team and it was super cool to be in a group so effectively breaking gender stereotyping. 


I have heard so many stories about the lives of local people during and after the storm. Here are a few: 

  • CAPS served as an emergency shelter, and one volunteer told me a story she’d heard from a homeowner who had been at CAPS during the storm. She was in a room with a bunch of mostly elderly people, and her husband and one other man were holding the door shut as the water surged outside. When she looked out the window, all she saw was the sea, complete with sharks swimming by and people getting washed away. What she was seeing as the sea should have been the schoolground, but it was all under water. Somehow her husband had a huge burst of strength and was able to hold the door shut, saving everyone in the room, while others outside were washed away. 
  • Another homeowner, Donna Lee, sheltered in a room of her home with the rest of the family. Then the roof blew off that section and they moved to a closet…until the roof blew off there. Then they moved to the bathroom, which soon had the same fate. They spent the next three hours (I may have this detail wrong) attempting to crawl to their car while winds whipped around them at 183 miles per hour. Finally, somehow they got there, and one of her daughters was almost blown away by the force of the winds as they tried to get into the car. They eventually all got inside, thinking they were safe, and then a roof from another house blew by and took off the sunroof of the car. They survived though. 
  • There was a vigil this weekend and one man told the story of being in the house with his 7- and 11-year-old daughters. As the waters rose he came to a point where he accepted that it was his time to go, and he was swept under the water. Then somehow, miraculously, he reemerged in a tiny spot that was not underwater and survived, but his daughters did not. 
  • One of our AHAH cooks, Rosie, lost her entire house in the storm, right down to the foundation. She has been renting an apartment since. 
  • Another local, Richard, slept on a bench for two weeks after the storm, before getting to move into a halfway house. As he put it, there is nothing right in the Bahamas after the storm. Richard said that it takes the government around three days to shut down a school after they discover mold, and that no progress would be happening at CAPS if not for us. He said that locals had been doing quick jobs to get the schools up and running, but then mold would come back and kids would get sick again. 
  • At one of the houses as we were working a man came walking by, and I caught the following words of his song: “I’m a true believer when things are down and out.” 

Some other observations: 

  • Driving to CAPS one day we passed a truck on fire after it had exploded. Many of these cars had been sitting there for months after the storm, so it’s not surprising!
  • The ground keeps getting on fire, because people are trying to get electrical lines back in the ground but then will sometimes activate the wrong ones. Today we passed a fire truck putting out a ground fire. 
  • There are so many frogs living in these houses! We regularly have to rescue frogs as we’re working. 
  • There are also tons of cockroaches. Today one fell on my head and scurried under my hardhat! 
  • At one house we found a flare gun in the attack, probably left there from someone sheltering there. 
  • These darn dogs! Because they were domesticated there are so many who whine and look at you like they want to be petted, but then sometimes they snap at you, or they are carrying lots of ticks and fleas. We have to be careful around the dogs even if they seem super nice. 

Ok, that’s all for now. I had an AMAZING adventure on my day off yesterday. More on that in another post!

Interested in supporting hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas? Contribute to my fundraiser for All Hands and Hearts here. Thank you!

It’s Tuesday night and there is hardly any wind – finally a non-chilly evening! The nights have been getting slightly warmer and I’ve gone down to sleeping in just one jacket instead of two! X-D

Party Time

Sunday night I joined 45 AHAH staff and volunteers and headed to Little Harbor, where Lisa – the local who was hosting a party for us – lived. Lisa has an interesting story. She employs around 180 Haitian and Bahamian workers on her property, and after the storm she made sure that every one of them was well off before beginning work on her own home. I don’t remember the number, but she spent a very large amount of money making sure they could get their lives back to at least a bit of normalcy before she worked on herself. 

While we were waiting to go I started chatting with two other volunteers, Kiley and Tyler, who live in Seattle. They are also not huge party people and we’re all around the same age, and Kiley recently traded a full-time teaching life for subbing so that she could have some freedom to do things like this. Sounds familiar 😉 

Eventually we were able to get into a car and, after a half hour drive, dropped our jaws as we arrived at Lisa’s property, The Abaco Estate (or something like that…I forgot the name). It was HUGE and pristine, with a giant pool and lots of beach to explore (complete with a giant flamingo float in the water), plus unlimited beers, a bbq, and beach games. I didn’t know many people yet so the party was a great opportunity to get to know volunteers as we hung out on the beach. The most interesting people I got to know that day were Karin and Sid, who are both in their 50s and left their home and jobs to roam the world, volunteering as they go. They plan to do this for ten years or until they get their first grandchild, whichever comes first (they are hoping ten years comes first!). They are living out of backpacks and having a great time. They’ve volunteered on four AHAH projects (including three times in Puerto Rico), done Workaway stints, etc. The fact that they’ve been doing this successfully and loving it makes me feel great about my decision to just be an adjunct rather than pursuing a full time faculty position and fill the rest of the time with volunteering, travel, music, and other creative pursuits. Life is good! 

That was basically it…Tyler, Kiley, and I went for a long walk along the entire coastline, I got burnt despite lots of sunscreen, we collected shells, hung out in the flamingo floatie, and of course I made sure to speak French to one of the Haitians working the party. His name was Jean-Claude and he was so happy I could speak French with him! 

Bahamian Culture and Slang

On the drive back I asked our driver about Bahamian music culture. She was excited that I knew about rake and scrape (the official music of the Bahamas) and recommended some rake and scrape artists: Ronnie Butler, KB, and D Mac. Rake and scrape is called this because the instruments used are: A saw with a screwdriver, a board, harmonica, a goatskin drum, and occasionally cowbell. She recommended a song called “Broach On Your Bread” which is Bahamian slang for stealing your lover.

I also learned the term “hot cake,” which refers to the stray dogs around the island. It’s a sad term and is Bahamian slang for the burnt stuff you scrape out of the bottom of a pot and, post-storm, refers to the strays as well. Most of those dogs probably had owners before the storm but have been left to roam wild. Our AHAH base is a special needs school so we need to make sure to shoo the dogs away all the time so that they don’t try to come around when the students are back. Most of these dogs had domesticated lives and want to be petted, but we need to ignore them. 

Since Sunday, I’ve done more or less the same work I wrote about last time (up in the rafters) so I’ll skip that part of this blog update. However, because Sunday marked the six month anniversary of the storm, we had some very special guests at base: The majority of the AHAH board and the founder of All Hands, David Campbell. 

David Campbell and the History of All Hands and Hearts

On Monday evening during dinner David spoke to everyone about his work, then bought ice cream and had a Q&A session with anyone who was interested. The journey to AHAH started after the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. David is passionate about poverty alleviation and wanted to help those in need, so he gathered donations from friends and made his way there in 2005. He thought his experience there would be a one-off experience, but when he was there he realized there was a huge need for help, so he decided to start a small program to give volunteers a chance to serve. He thought he was done, but then when Hurricane Katrina hit the US he knew he had to do more, and All Hands was born (under a different name at that time). As time went on the organization grew and he found a team to help him run the organization. Meanwhile, the supermodel Petra Nemcova was started her own organization because of the Thailand tsunami. She had been living there at the time and lost her fiancee in the tsunami. Then, when she returned to visit Thailand months later, she was surprised to see that children were still not in school; no one was rebuilding. She determined that a generation would essentially be lost if those children missed out on too much school, so she started the NGO “Happy Hearts” to focus on post-disaster school construction. Like David, she wanted to create a program that did not charge people to volunteer, so that anyone could come and help. 

David and Petra met years later, saw how similar their interests were, and decided to merge their organizations, reestablishing themselves as All Hands and Hearts in 2017. To learn more, check out the backstory here:

Fun side note: Another board member I met was Adam Haber, who started the All Hands Superstorm Sandy program on Long Island. He looked very familiar and we determined that we may have been in some Long Term Recovery Group meetings together. I also met Chief Operating Officer Jorge Abreu, who told me about his mission to bring musical instruments to the bandrooms of the Bahamas once the schools are open again. A great mission indeed!

So…that’s all the updates for now. Tomorrow I head out to a local Bahamian’s house, my first one! The work at CAPS is not complete but we finished vacuuming and scrubbing, and AHAH changes up teams so that volunteers have a range of experiences. I will miss the opportunity to spray CAPS tomorrow (the last step in mold removal/prevention is spraying), but I’m excited for the experience to meet some locals and work on a house.

Found a keyboard at CAPS!

Interested in supporting hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas? Contribute to my fundraiser for All Hands and Hearts here. Thank you!

First of all, holy moly…it is an incredible jolt to your entire body and soul when you take a cold shower in a shower stall made of tarp while the wind makes the temperature feel like it’s the middle of winter. Goodness gracious, that was an experience. 

It’s Saturday night and it is freezing outside. The winds of the Bahamas are no joke and I was not at all prepared for the resulting cold temperatures. Note to anyone traveling here: Bring a sweatshirt. I am very grateful to two volunteers who went home today and left me two blankets. Hopefully I won’t be so cold tonight! 

Because it’s so cold out, the Saturday night AHAH party people were all here in the main building playing beer pong for awhile. They’ve since gone outside and a few of us made a little tabletop game area to play cards, Scrabble, and Scrabble Slam!, which is a lighter version of Scrabble. Much more my speed than beer pong. X-D

Fun side note: I’ve got a sticker on my laptop that says “Sloop” from volunteering on the Clearwater and people keep asking about it. Tonight I learned that the tiling guy with the great music (John) has been to the Clearwater festival every year since it started in 1974, and he and his wife own the ice cream shop that all the Clearwater Sloop crew go to when we dock in Croton-on-Hudson (The Blue Pig. The ice cream is homemade and delicious; highly recommend)). I’ll have to say hi next time I’m on the Clearwater! He has actually been to Pete and Toshi Seeger’s house in Beacon to bring chairs down to the festival during it’s early years, and they used to bring Pete vanilla ice cream. Apparently he loved vanilla ice cream! 😀 The other tiling guy (Peter)’s brother worked on the Clearwater 20 years ago. Small world! 😀

A Day In the Rafters

Today was a really cool day. I was assigned to the crew at Central Abaco Primary School (CAPS) for a day of scrubbing and vacuuming. This is a very important job; if a building is not properly de-molded, mold will likely grow back and make the inhabitants sick. Naturally, since this is a primary school, scrubbing and vacuuming are serious tasks. It’s also a job you can do without much training, so it’s one of the primary tasks AHAH volunteers do during the response phase of disaster management. 

Upon arrival at CAPS (a short drive from base), crew leader Halle led us through a stretching routine as we introduced ourselves (crews change regularly, and not everyone knows each other). Halle explained what we’d be doing and asked: Who would feel comfortable working in the rafters? I felt like I could do it so I volunteered along with five other people. This is one great part of AHAH work: You can always say you’re not comfortable with something and there will be another task for you to do; no pressure to ever do anything you don’t want to. 

Central Abaco Primary School

Although the initial mold removal phase of the work had been finished on a previous day, we were required to wear sanitation masks at CAPS because mold and other particles could be present as we scrubbed and vacuumed the wood. Figuring out how to make my mask fit properly was a little more challenging than I thought, but once I found a good one to use it was very easy to wear all day, and surprisingly comfortable! 

Next, I learned how to do the two tasks of the day. I was vacuuming, so the people scrubbing would thoroughly scrub each beam of wood, make a chalk mark, then I would follow them, vacuum each beam three times, and make another chalk mark to show that it had been scrubbed and vacuumed. Pretty straightforward.

When I climbed into the rafters, it took me some time to figure out the best way to move around. At first there were spots I thought I’d never reach, but as I got more comfortable I found that I could reach those spots and furt ones too! Soon the rafters felt like a playground, and I began to enjoy the task very much. I was also glad I’ve been regularly practicing yoga for the past half year; balance and flexibility really helped me succeed up there! And don’t worry mom, the beams were sturdy and I never felt in danger of falling. 🙂

During lunch I learned more about the project through the United Nations that is getting shut down. It’s called “Better Shelter” and is built on a local church’s property, led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). AHAH lended volunteers to help with the project for two weeks, but the latest update is that the government might tear down the shelters, since the locals are unhappy that illegal Haitian immigrants will most likely use the shelters (right now they are living in tents near the shelters even now, six months after the storm). Everyone here is very unhappy that the project is most likely not only going to be canceled but also that their work will be undone. One volunteer here was saying that although he has his own opinions about illegal immigrants, none of that should matter in a situation like this one. Although I most likely don’t agree with his overall standpoint on immigration, I absolutely agree with him; in a disaster zone all those opinions should not take precedence over at least meeting basic human needs.  

We were at CAPS from around 7 AM-3 PM, and I vacuumed for around 6 of those hours. I hope I get to go into the rafters again – that was a fun way to spend the day! After the scrubbing and vacuuming, another crew will come in to spray the building to make sure mold can’t grow back.

Tomorrow we have the day off and are all headed to a beachside party hosted by one of the locals. Should be fun! It also marks the six month anniversary of the storm, so some of the executives for AHAH will be on base. Apparently both the party with the locals and seeing the executives are rare occurrences, so I definitely chose a good time to join the program! 😀

Interested in supporting hurricane relief efforts in the Bahamas? Contribute to my fundraiser for All Hands and Hearts here. Thank you!

Mold doesn’t stand a chance!