It’s been 5 months since Hurricane Maria hit the Virgin Islands. Roofs were torn off, trees were uprooted, and homes were inundated with water. Mold spread through people’s houses and caused health problems for the residents. Although this was a tragedy, a disaster, not all was lost.
The community here is very strong and accommodating. When we arrived on Saint Croix, people welcomed us with open arms. We hit the ground running and bought the tools we needed to help the community . We started setting up volunteer events to help clean up the island because, even though we are AmeriCorps and we get things done, we can’t do much without the help of the locals. They are the reason why we are able to get around the island, why we have a place to set up our Incident Command Post, why we have a place to stay, and why we are able to have dinner and do laundry.
Our first volunteer event was helping to clean up a beach close to the hotel we are now staying at. There were 6 AmeriCorps members and over 20 volunteers who came out to help. As we picked up trash along side the seashore, I talked with people who were determined to get the island back to normal.
Our second volunteer event was at a facility that housed men living with mental disabilities. There were trees and powerlines down throughout their property as well as widow-makers, snags in trees, and brush, causing them to not be able to enjoy the little land that they have. Being unable to walk or recreate around their facility has caused many of the resident to become irritable.
When we arrived, three of the men who lived there were excited to see us and talk to us about their lives and home. One of them used to live in Texas and could not stop talking about the food and the buffets there. We had one volunteer, Tom, who worked with FEMA and was only on the island for a week. As we worked through the property, the four volunteers helped haul brush to the curb. One of the housemates, Denzel, wore a backpack filled with CD’s and books because it comforted him and kept him calm. He didn’t talk much but was one of the hardest workers there. Hauling brush in his crocs, he would pick up logs twice his size and throw them over the fence onto the brush pile. Everytime we took breaks, Travis, the man obsessed with buffets, kept inviting us to move to the island, saying the beaches here are the most beautiful in the world. Although he was moving to Georgia, he wanted us to live there to maintain the beauty of the island. He asked me to braid his hair, but unfortunately I did not know how. When I admitted this to him, he began to tease me.
As we talked with them throughout the day, we realized that they were not drinking much water. When we asked if they had any, they said that their water was yellow and tasted gross. Due to the hurricane, their water supply was contaminated and their food supply was minimal. We shared our water and the little food we had. Tom bought the guys food since they didn’t have any real sustenance for lunch. Luckily, the pastor who manages the home brought water and snacks for all of us. During lunch, I chatted with Gregory, who told me about his upbringing and how the pastor found him outside the local supermarket begging for food. His childhood was not one of fairy tales but he was thankful for his mama and for being alive. He said if the hurricane cannot stop him, nothing can. Towards the end, everyone was getting tired but no one quit. Even though we had a small group, we hauled over 100 cubic yards of debris. I felt so tiny standing in front of one of the piles we hauled when we stopped to take a picture. I was reminded of why I joined AmeriCorps. It is not about the exotic places we get to travel to or the educational award we receive, it is about the community. It is about the people in need and the one-on-one difference we make.
It has been almost 4 weeks since we arrived on Saint Croix. We have finished 26 sites, removed 840 cubic yards of debris, and have cut down 78 hazards trees. Working over 70 hours a week can be stressful and tiring, but everytime we go out in the field and see the difference we make first-hand, I am beyond amazed. It is a reward in itself. Many of the residents we help are elderly, disabled, or financially unable to remove the water damaged items or hazards debris from their homes. When we are working at homes that people still live in, they are so grateful for our help that they try to feed us all types of food from barbecue to desserts. When we are finished with sites, some homeowners began to cry out of joy and relief. I am not ready to leave Saint Croix but I know when I do, the island will be in good hands with the next AmeriCorps group. I know not only Saint Croix but the rest of the Virgin Islands will be back to normal in no time, because as AmeriCorps members we get things done and do not quit until it is finished.
Sonia Hernandez – Disaster Response Team Member