The logic for winter vacations goes something like this: Book a flight to somewhere where the temperatures average in the 80s, pack a swimsuit and SPF 50, and prepare to relax.
When I left New York City for a week in early February of this year, though, I only followed half of those rules. I flew to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands not to chill on a beach, but to work. The 32-square-mile island, home to just over 50,000 people, was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017. A popular tourist and cruise-ship destination, the island’s beaches, are, by now, in good shape; crowds of vacationers have returned to the sand and turquoise waters to tan and venture out on snorkeling trips.
But if you leave the shores and head up into the island’s steep hills, you’ll see a different picture: houses with their roofs blown clear off; churches with no facades, shops boarded up. From overhead, blue tarps are as common as corrugated metal roofs. The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory that comprises St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, estimates they need $7.5 billion in assistance from the federal government to rebuild the approximately 18,500 homes and businesses destroyed in the storms.
But aid, from agencies like FEMA, has been slow to reach the islands, and is unlikely to cover the full costs of recovery. To fill the gap, volunteer groups have stepped in. All Hands And Hearts, the group I volunteered with for the week I was there, set up on St. Thomas in October 2017. The organization–the result of a recent merger between All Hands Volunteers, which coordinates groups of people to do disaster relief work like debris removal, and the Happy Hearts Fund, which finances school rebuilds in disaster-stricken communities–has, to date, completed over 500 projects on St. Thomas, ranging from removing trees from properties, to sanitizing homes after clearing them out.
While I was there, I worked on just one property. It was a six-unit apartment complex just west of the capital city of Charlotte Amalie, owned by a landlord who, once the storms hit, abandoned his tenants and the island. It is property owners, not tenants, who are able to file for FEMA assistance, and because this landlord refused to do so on behalf of his tenants, they were left with no aid. When All Hands And Hearts first assessed the site, they determined it was one of the most severely damaged properties they’d seen to date: Debris was piled around seven feet high in the driveway, and the upstairs was caked in around a foot of shattered drywall amid an obstacle course of dislodged beams and appliances.
Barring some wood shop classes and “helping” my dad on construction around the house (but really just watching), I’ve never wielded any power tools. I’ve never used a crowbar. It didn’t matter. As part of a team of 10 people, I helped to clear the driveway and two of the units on the top floor of the apartment. It took an entire week, but those units are now ready to be rebuilt, and it’s estimated that our work as a volunteer team saved the tenant around $80,000 in debris removal costs. I surprised myself with how much I was capable of as an individual (I never thought, for instance, that I would ever dismantle an entire wall and hurl it off a second-floor balcony into a growing pile of cleared-out debris), but that paled in comparison to how blown away I was by how much we could accomplish as a group.
But the experience was not for the faint of heart: The All Hands And Hearts volunteers, who ranged in age from 20 to mid-70s, stayed in a 70-bunk room in a church on the eastern side of the island, where we woke up at 6:30 am, were on the road by 8 a.m., and back to bed, exhausted, by 9 p.m. It was not a glamorous trip. While my team made it to the beach twice after wrapping for the day, we were there to work, and most of our time was spend sweating under the 85-degree humidity in a hard hat.
But I don’t think anyone there would’ve had it otherwise–and after this experience, I’ve begun to look at the idea of travel and vacation in a whole different way. All Hands And Hearts operates programs all around the world, from Nepal, where they’re working on earthquake recovery, to the Caribbean, where they’re beginning to expand to islands including Puerto Rico and Dominica, that were affected by Irma and Maria. Once established, the All Hand And Hearts team stays an area, not for months, but years–seeing through every stage of recovery from debris removal to complete rebuilding. The only expense is the cost of getting to the site, the program provides food and lodging, and you meet and work with a group of kind, motivated people unlike any other. It is entirely possible to plan travel around where you might be able to spend a week giving back in this way–and I hope to do just that for all of the trips I take going forward.