As details of the devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian flow out of the Bahamas, Norwegian Cruise Line (parent company of Sixthman) has committed to donating $2 million and is matching donations to All Hands and Hearts dollar for dollar as part of their Hope Starts Here campaign. In July 2019 I had the chance to volunteer with All Hands and Hearts in St. John, USVI. If my story inspires you at all, please take a moment to consider joining Sixthman in donating to All Hands and Hearts. They survive off donations and volunteers, and every little bit helps.
Hi, I'm Matt. I joined Sixthman full time in 2010 after paying to attend The Rock Boat from 2004 to 2010. I'm on the Leadership team at Sixthman and am the Sr. Director of IT, GS, Launch and Community. I've attended 58 Sixthman events amassing 250+ days in the Caribbean (and 29 port stops in the Bahamas), not counting my own personal travels. I love the experiences our festivals create and the many wonderful places our events visit throughout the Caribbean.
Everyone wants to know that their donations are going to a good cause, so here is my firsthand experience volunteering with All Hands and Hearts.
In March 2016 I spent three nights camping on the beach in Virgin Islands National Park in St. John, USVI. It was a magical place and I vowed to return as often as I could. In September 2017, before I could make it back, St. John and surrounding islands were hit by a catastrophic one-two punch: 200mph winds from Category 5 Hurricane Irma followed two weeks later by Category 4 Hurricane Maria. The damage was catastrophic with 85% of homes damaged or destroyed.
Shortly after the storms, NCL committed to raising $2.5 million for All Hands and Hearts to help St. John and the Caribbean recover. It seemed like a good cause, so I donated a few bucks while wishing I could do more.
Fast forward to early 2019 when I decided I wanted to volunteer somewhere during my time off and saw All Hands and Hearts was still doing hurricane recovery work in St. John. It seemed like a no brainer to go help an island that I enjoyed so much.
I reached out to All Hands and Hearts and confirmed a 16-day volunteer trip for July 2019.
All Hands and Hearts identifies communities that need help, arrives immediately, then remains on site long term to ensure recovery. During my trip, All Hands and Hearts was in their final month of a 21-month commitment to helping the island of St. John recover from the 2017 storms.
Volunteers arrive and depart according to their own schedule, but the group averaged around 30 people while I was there. Each day we were split into teams assigned to different job sites. Some of my sites were debris removal, some were interior rebuilds and tiling floors, and others were for finishing touches, painting inside and outside etc.
The interior rebuilds and painting sites were for homeowners who had been displaced from their home for 20 months since the storm. Every day of work brought them one day closer to moving back in and finding a little normalcy in their life.
I spent several days at a local artist’s house doing debris removal. The top floor of their main house completely blew off in the storm, so they fixed up their damaged art studio after the storm and lived there while trying to keep their art business (their livelihood) going while they rebuilt their house and lives. We worked side by side with the homeowner to haul away a mountain of wood and house debris; debris that used to be their walls, their roof and their memories.
Another debris removal site was at the end of a deserted mountainside driveway. When I asked about the driveway to nowhere, I was shown the intact stone steps that at one point led to a cottage. The cottage was completely nonexistent and the debris we were moving was all that remained nearby. They had no plans to rebuild and instead had gone elsewhere.
The work that All Hands and Hearts does is meaningful and offered hope to those who needed it.
The Volunteer Life
The volunteers for All Hands and Hearts are an amazing bunch of people, volunteering for all their own reasons, but all committed to doing very hard, completely selfless work.
St. John workdays consisted of 6am wake up calls, followed by full, exhausting days working in blistering hot 90-degree, humid conditions, with the bonus of full sun at outdoor sites, before returning to basecamp in the evening. Very basic meals were provided on workdays. Many days 4 of us would drink an entire 5-gallon water container on site. And I’d still be dehydrated at night if not for downing a few more bottles in the evenings. I did this for only 16 days (I had to get back to planning your awesome vacations), but many volunteers were there for a full month, or two, or even six.
Sure, the ocean views were pretty and St. John is an amazing place to visit (and you should!), but among all the locals and the tourists was a rotating group of 30 purple shirts, living in a tent city with sleeping pads for mattresses, two generators, a cistern to store water, port-a-potties for restrooms and outside showers consisting of a 5 gallon bucket and a cup (the cups sourced from Soggy Dollar across the channel on Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands, aka one of Sixthman’s favorite places in the world). As a backpacker, for me basecamp was great, but for many it would be unbearable.
The low at night was 80 degrees F. One hot night I was sleeping with my tent’s rainfly half open. At 2am it went from totally calm to, in one second’s time, raining so hard that I thought someone was spraying me with a firehose. The wind had blown my rainfly all the way off so when I bolted awake and attempted to quickly close it, the rain fly wasn’t there. Everything I own was soaked and all of me spent the final four hours of my evening sleeping in the back of a Jeep that half of me fit in. At 6am it was time to do it all over again, after temporarily mending the broken tent pole (that I somehow snapped while frantically fumbling around in the dark) with some duct tape and some tent stakes.
My goal in volunteering was simply to help out a few good people that needed it, but I feel my trip did as much good for me as it did for them. The experience was a great reminder to me of how I’m blessed with a pretty great life, a comfortable place to sleep, air conditioning, a car that wasn’t destroyed in a storm, a source of income, and a daily routine that does not consist of piecing my life back together one salvaged piece of wood at a time while wondering how to simultaneously live my life.
I was super impressed with All Hands and Hearts. They run a great, not wasteful organization (see previously mentioned The Volunteer Life section) with 96% of donations going directly toward their projects. On St. John they completed work at 300 response sites impacting 30% of the residents. Now the Bahamas can use help, and your donation can help provide it.
Someday soon I hope to volunteer with All Hands and Hearts again. In the meantime, I hope you will join Sixthman and myself in supporting their recovery efforts.
Get your donation matched at https://give.allhandsandhearts.org/campaign/hope-starts-here-norwegian-cruise-line/c248179
Read more about Norwegian Cruise Line’s Hope Starts Here campaign at http://www.nclhltd.com/hurricanerelief
Read more about All Hands and Hearts at https://www.allhandsandhearts.org/