International Volunteer Group Makes Its Way Across St. John

When a modest wooden home by the side of Centerline Road near Bethany Church got blown apart by Hurricane Irma, it was hard to imagine what would happen next. When the owner returned to what was left, he got a wheelbarrow and some trash bags and began picking up the pieces.

Then, in one swoop, a tribe of folks wearing purple shirts showed up. In one day the damaged home was taken down to the foundation. The debris was stacked up by the side of the road while homeowner Chester Brady stood and watched under a shady tree.

All Hands and Hearts had come to St. John. According to information appearing on their website, they came on a two-year mission. Volunteers, some of whom have served on relief missions around the world, came in a few days after Hurricane Irma in September.

“We actually arrived three days after Irma, got evacuated, and then came back three days after Maria and started the St. Thomas program that’s been running ever since,” said Ryan Cuevas, the group’s 25-year-old program director.

Cuevas began his work with the group in 2014 after leaving his home in New York and traveling to his ancestral home in the Philippines.

As they arrived on St. John in March they had already teamed up with youth learning the building trades at My Brother’s Workshop. They made the acquaintance of the Rotary Club East around the time they pitched in on a neighborhood cleanup in Smith Bay.

Not too long after dropping their travel gear at Caneel Bay, two teams of volunteers set out to find out what on St. John needed their help.

“Right now we have about 10 to 15 volunteers running two sites a day. And then, depending on the size of the site and the extent of the damage, it can take anywhere from half a day to two weeks,” Cuevas said.

In the case of Brady, also known by his calypso stage name, the Mighty Groover, it took about half a day. “They just showed up,” he said with a smile.

Cases eligible for All Hands and Hearts assistance get a work up. Cuevas said those where the homeowner or occupants are least able to help themselves get priority treatment.

“All of our cases are prioritized, so we look at the age, if there was a disability, single parent … how storms affected their income. So that when we start doing a job we say, okay, we’re going to give it everything because they really, really need this,” he said.

But as recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria rolled into its six month Cuevas said volunteer numbers are dwindling. The project manager said he’s hoping local groups will now reach out to aid their efforts.

One of the first groups to respond was Gifft Hill School, which announced it would join All Hands and Hearts during its 8th Annual Day of Service. Two GHS 11th graders donned hard hats and rolled up their sleeves to help a homeowner in the Cruz Bay area.

“It went great,” said the school’s development director, Molly Murrill.

According to the group’s website All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response “addresses immediate and long-term needs of communities impacted b natural disasters.”