In September 2017, Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall in the British Virgin Islands causing extensive damage to homes, schools, community facilities, telecommunications and utilities. Tortola, the largest of these islands, was the most affected with approximately 85% of all housing stock- over 4000 homes completely destroyed. The total damage is assumed to amount to over $3.5 billion.
In July 2018, I travelled out to Tortola to volunteer with the organisation All Hands and Hearts. All Hands and Hearts are a disaster relief organisation who work internationally with communities to aid both their short-term and long-term recovery following the destruction of natural disasters. The project in Tortola had a strong focus on education establishments and helping to get the many displaced students on the island back to school. I specifically worked on 3 different worksites; Wonder Years Day Care and Pre School, The Rainbow Transitional Home and Autism Centre and Ivan Dawson Primary School.
During my 3 months in the BVI I participated in a wide variety of construction work at numerous different levels; every day was different. The work was extremely labour intensive and would often involve using a variety of tools and materials, working alongside local labourers in the repairs and re-construction of these establishments. To name a few, I helped remove debris, repair roofs, build brand new structures from scratch, worked with concrete and cement, painted new exteriors and interiors and used a range of power tools. Personally, I had never been involved in any sort of construction work, so the initial thought of this was very daunting but I picked it up very quickly and I have gained skills I never thought I would.
Not only did we work on these building sites, we also lived there. The living conditions, whilst they were extremely basic and I was being eaten alive by mosquitos, they have given me memories I will cherish forever along with a new level of gratitude and appreciation and also enabled me to make long lasting connections with the people I was working with. Throughout my 3 months I met lots of wonderful individuals from all sorts of different backgrounds and from all over the world and I have subsequently made friends for life. The project was also deeply integrated with the local community; All Hands and Heart’s presence on the island is extremely valued and appreciated. As a result, I was able to also meet and connect with many local families, business owners and teachers.
My overall experience was extremely rewarding; especially given the nature of the work and being able to see the physical progress day by day. During my time in Tortola I was lucky enough to see the finishing of all of the 3 education establishments on which I worked which was incredibly touching. I can honestly say my time with All Hands and Hearts was one of the best experiences of my life and I have returned home with a new perspective and desire to continue to volunteer internationally.
Prior to my visit to Tortola, whilst I had done a variety of different volunteering in the UK, I had never volunteered internationally. I had always been cautious of falling into the trap of voluntourism or paying extortionate amounts to organisations more concerned with gathering funds than making a lasting impact. I was introduced by a friend to indiGO Volunteers and it has enabled me to have a quick and easy way to search for fee free organisations collectively. It acts as a stepping stone to different organisations all around the world and it was very simple for me to start the application process with All Hands and Hearts. I have IndiGO to thank for one of the best experiences of my life and I will be sure to be use them again in the future to facilitate any further international volunteer trips.