A young woman wipes beads of sweat from her brow after pummeling a concrete wall into a pile of rubble. Leaning on her sledge hammer she surveys the site where three other volunteers are clearing away the debris. It’s hard to imagine that before Typhoon Yolanda this was once someone’s home.
Outside the bustling city of Tacloban, Philippines, another group of volunteers is experiencing a different side of disaster relief. They aren’t tearing things down, they are building them up. One volunteer cheers on his eclectic team as they construct wooden walls for temporary housing. The simple 16 by 16 foot structures will soon house families confined to tents since the typhoon struck six months before. A Scottish accent pierces the hammers and saws to commend the volunteers on their work.
You may wonder what has brought these people from every corner of the planet to shovel rubble and build homes. The common denominator is a nonprofit called All Hands.
All Hands Volunteers (hands.org) is a US based organization with its genesis in the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami. The organisation’s founder, David Campbell, realised the need for hands on assistance after a disaster and the thousands worldwide willing to be of service. Campbell established the first base in Thailand and created a website connecting potential volunteers with the project. All Hands was born.
Today All Hands has blossomed into a far-reaching international nonprofit. To date they have initiated 36 disaster relief projects around the world. They responded to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti and Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The premise of All Hands is simple: If you’re willing to lend a hand, physically up for the challenge and able to get yourself to the project – you’re a candidate.
I recently joined All Hands in the Philippines for Project Leyte. This was my first experience volunteering in a disaster affected area and I was unsure what to expect. What I encountered was a dynamic group of selfless people who braved planes, ferries and automobiles so they could be of service to those in need. New volunteers had to adapt quickly to the challenges of working in the Philippines: extreme heat, potential diseases and the occasional hygiene issues. We weren’t housed in expensive hotels or escorted in air conditioned SUVs. We slept, worked, and ate like locals.
I also found that All Hands functions in a largely sustainable manner. In the case of Project Leyte, our home base was a converted dormitory. Each room was wall to wall with bunk beds reminiscent of a college dorm. Our meals were prepared by Filipino staff and created from ingredients at the local market. Rice was on the daily menu without fail, but it was hard not to appreciate this grain after wandering through rice paddies and witnessing roadside expanses of it drying in the sun.
We commuted to work sites each day on jeepneys, open air vehicles functioning like casual buses and driven by local drivers. When working we gave every task our all knowing that our efforts brought people closer to normality. We deconstructed roofs and walls, dug trenches, cleared rubble, mixed concrete, carried lumber, laid floors and erected walls. By the end of a long day our blood, sweat and tears were exchanged for three meals, a cold shower and a bunk for the next. The sense of accomplishment, excessive tan-lines and words of gratitude from local families were free.
Sustainability was also evident in our temporary housing project. The houses were constructed almost entirely out of coco lumber; wood sawn from coconut trees. There were moments of frustration with this finicky wood as some segments were so dense that pounding nails through it was an insurmountable feat while other parts were so soft and spongy that they oozed a blood-like sap. Regardless, I was in awe of the material’s history once I learned it came from trees ripped from the earth by Yolanda. To complete the structures, sheets of palm panels called nipa covered the walls while the roofs were thatched with palm frond sawali. We rejoiced with the completion of each house.
When it came time to leave I reflected on all that I had witnessed during a month and a half in the Philippines. The broken trees against beautiful countryside, faces of children laughing as we rode home from work and the chills felt after a local described the bodies left on the streets when Yolanda hit.
The kindness and resiliency of the Filipino people has left an indelible mark on my view of the world. In the words of a people who have endured such an incredible loss, but have chosen to carry on in a spirit of joy; Bangon Tacloban!