Disaster Relief Volunteering in The Bahamas

Trish Fontanilla
Feb 18 · 12 min read

For the audio version of this post:

I’m sitting at home and staring at the rooftops of apartments and restaurants and offices. It’s a view I’ve looked at for almost 3 years, and while I’ve stood in this window watching the sunset or moonrise, I’ve never focused in on the buildings themselves. Everything that’s contained, all the people and possessions that are protected from the elements.

Top-January 2018 in St. Thomas; Bottom-January 2020 in Marsh Harbour. // Photos taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

Flying into Marsh Harbour in The Bahamas for the first time about a month ago, the rooftops were the first things that caught my eye. While this wasn’t my first time flying into a disaster zone, it felt different. I had volunteered in St. Thomas with disaster relief organization All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) in January 2018, less than 4 months after Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the US Virgin Islands. I distinctly remembered flying in because I could see all the blue FEMA tarps uniformly covering the buildings that were nestled into all the lush greenery that had returned after the hurricanes. It looked like someone had spilled a bucket a blue blocks onto a lawn in the summertime.

But flying into Marsh Harbour, 4.5 months after Hurricane Dorian made landfall there, it was clear that this indeed was the strongest hurricane on record for the Atlantic. Jeff Masters of Scientific American said it was worthy of a Category 6 rating, even though the current scale goes to 5.

Roof was blown off of the girls’ bathrooms at the Central Abaco School. // Picture taken by @cort_press

There weren’t many tarps on the rooftops, so you could see deep down to the floorboards of the buildings that were still standing. I’d later think about something I knew to be true but didn’t ever cross my mind in my “regular” life. No rooftop means no work can be done inside a house. No rooftop means continued water damage from rainfall, and mold. No rooftop means that most houses, even though they were still there, were not livable.

Another thing I noticed flying in were the leafless trees. Coming from Boston mid-winter, I’m used to that sight, but it seemed eery that a place that gets so much water and sun was still so barren compared to being on such a similar timeline as my trip to St. Thomas. I think I saw 4 flowers the entire time I was in Marsh Harbour.

And if that didn’t prepare me for the disaster zone I was heading into, the airport did. It felt a little like a ghost town, except there were so many people in it. Stores were closed, and the counters had been abandoned. Flight staff sat at folding tables with their computers and scales alongside them. It dawned on me that the reason Nassau, my stopover before Marsh Harbour, was loud and bustling was because there were people coming home for the first time since the hurricane, and they weren’t sure if there would be a home to come back to.

Barren trees and abandoned cars. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla).

Arriving to Base

Getting picked up by Ollie, the AHAH Volunteer Relations Coordinator, and heading to basecamp did put me at ease. Even though this project was starting to seem much different than the last, once you’ve done an All Hands project it feels a little like a homecoming when you head into the next one. The base was laid out differently than St. Thomas, but the vibe and the schedule were the same.

Pod view from the front door. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

Still sleeping in mosquito net covered bunk beds but instead of a school gym, I was in a connected pod — a glorified tent with a front door and two bunk beds with an adjoining entrance into another pod. No working toilets here either, but instead of flushing indoor toilets with buckets of water like at the last base, there are port-o-potties. It actually took me a day to notice (when I switched out my contacts), that there weren’t any mirrors on base either. The showers are outdoors in a wooden structure with PVC pipe shower heads, tarps creating stalls, and a bag with a rock to prevent any indecency or “door” flyaways.

As for the day to day, you get up at 6AM (or earlier) to make your breakfast and lunch, then pack pick up trucks with supplies to head to site by 7AM. Work ends around 3:30 or 4PM, and we all head home for an all team meeting back at base at 5PM to talk about what we worked on that day and the next day’s assignments. That’s all followed by dinner made by some incredible local cooks, and if you’re still hungry seconds are served (well, up for grabs) at 6:15PM. After dinner people sit outside and chat, play games, or head out to the local bar that just opened. Curfew and lights out by 9PM, although you could sneak to some corners of base to chat if trying to sleep at 9 seems early. To be honest, after the first full day I wondered if anyone would notice if I went to bed at 7.

Home is where you hang your hat. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

As I was getting checked in, I first ran into Auburn and Jules who were sitting outside the kitchen. When I said my name, Auburn got out of her seat to give me a hug and said, “I know you! You’re raising $3,200 because the last time you were with us you raised $3,100!” She had been filling in for Mikaela, The Bahamas AHAH volunteer coordinator, who was away when I got there. Ollie then gave us a tour and ran down some of the base rules, one of the biggest being, take care of yourself. Medical facilities on the island are very limited, and some people have had to leave or go back to the States to receive treatment. A good reminder for a workaholic like me. Pushing through here, would not only hurt myself, but the 70+ people on base with me and the little resources that the island has.

Walking back from the supermarket. // Photo by me (Trish Fontanilla)

As I proceeded to get settled in, I ran into two people that had been in St. Thomas around the time I was there but that I hadn’t met. First was David a retired mail carrier from Oregon, who also helped me find some power on base. Power is sparse throughout the island. A recent CNN report had a quote from The Bahamas Disaster Reconstruction Authority that said it would be fully restored by summer. That’s about 10 months after Hurricane Dorian, and just a few months before the next hurricane season starts. Many folks on the island are using generators (you can especially hear them at night), while our base is generally “unplugged” and runs on solar panels donated by Tesla. The day I had arrived was very sunny, which apparently was just in time because power was running low due to some dark and rainy days that past weekend.

I later ran into Stephen, the AHAH Finance Coordinator in The Bahamas, who had also volunteered in St. Thomas. We ran through names of people that we knew as if All Hands was our alma mater. I guess it is in a way. Time flies by like years, you learn so much about other places and people, and the bonds created on these sites are much stronger than other projects I’ve volunteered with. You really have to trust people in an emotional and physical way to do disaster relief work, and when you know that everyone’s heart is in the same place, it’s the kind of foundation that allows you to quickly develop deeper relationships and work smarter.

Every Child Counts

Mold removal crew. // Photo taken by Amanda Cabrera

My first day of volunteer work was spent in and around Every Child Counts (ECC). ECC is the only special needs school on the island (there are only two in The Bahamas), and right before the storm, they were about to open up a residence building where students could live. ECC is also the home base for volunteers and staff that I described above.

My very first job was mold removal in a school building, before I got pulled into picking up steel beams for one of the rooftops on campus. So a lot of scrubbing (for mold, we go over every surface 3 times) and lifting (believe it or not, steel beams are heavier than they look) and learning about how hard it can be to get supplies to the island (one night for dinner we did bagel burgers because the local store was almost out of bread, but to be honest I thought it was genius because of the density). All the while being surrounded by some quality humans from all over, including Tiffany and Amanda from Florida (sisters), Taylor from Chicago who just got back from volunteering in Australia, and Roxie from London (all pictured above).

World Central Kitchen

World Central Kitchen map of communities served. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

On my second day I went with a group to volunteer at World Central Kitchen (WCK) to cook meals and load up palettes for farmers markets. I am a huge fan of everything that Chef Jose Andres and WCK are doing globally, so it was truly an honor to volunteer with them. WCK was one of the first to go to The Bahamas post Hurricane Dorian, and not only were they serving the residents but the non-profits as well (everything was closed for weeks after the storm). It’s one of the reasons why us “Purples” (what we’re referred to since we roll in wearing our purple AHAH shirts) volunteer with WCK, as thanks for all the work they’ve done in the community. They’ve made food for 250 delivery locations and in the first week of February, they hit a milestone: 3 million meals served. After the local grocery store opened as well as some restaurants, WCK pared down the number of meals so that people could support the local economy and start preparing food at home again. However, they’re still serving thousands of meals a day.

This site is run by Chef Brian, Chef Cat, & Felix from WCK, but they work with lots of locals with service industry experience as well. I spent part of the morning with what felt like a canoe paddle stirring one of the big pans pictured below (before they were filled with lots and lots of bolognese).

6–7 of these large pans can make food for thousands. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

The woman that was helping with my pan had owned a restaurant and club, but unfortunately it was completely leveled by the hurricane. I would come to find out all of the local women I worked with that day had some story of loss. Standing among such strong, resilient, and joyful individuals was overwhelming, and I found myself taking some quiet beats to avoid asking too many nervous questions or doing that head tilt face as they were telling their stories. There was a moment during some prep work when “Oh Happy Day” came on and they were all singing. I dug my fingers into my hands to keep from crying.

(As a note — if anyone is working with food entrepreneurs in disaster areas, I’d love to chat to see if I can help in any way.)

Central Abaco Primary School

Sign found underneath debris. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

Central Abaco Primary School (CAPS) is the largest primary school on the island with around 400 students. All but one teacher suffered extensive personal damage to their own homes, and had to leave the island. CAPS was used as a shelter for about a week after the storm, and now it’s a pickup spot for meals from World Central Kitchen. I was with the first AHAH team to go in, and with our help and a couple other non-profits that are working on the school, CAPS is hoping to open later this Spring so that the students don’t fall further behind in their schoolwork.

My team chipping away at tile in one of the classrooms. This room proved to be particularly difficult. // Hyperlapse from my (Trish Fontanilla) phone.

For my last couple days, I worked on the library and some classrooms there. It’s hard not to think of the kids when you’re in a school. In one classroom, flashcards were still stuck to the wall, and I started to imagine just how scary a Category 5 hurricane must’ve been for these kids who are just learning the names for shapes. Thankfully Amanda brought a speaker so we could play music loudly, and I could spend less time with my thoughts and focus more on the work that needed to be done.

Volunteer Rosie cleaning up a room where we had pulled up the tiles. // Photo by me (Trish Fontanilla)

Last trip I learned how to take apart a kitchen with a hammer and a ripping bar, this trip I thought I’d develop a new skill for my LinkedIn profile: sledgehammering. Alas, it wasn’t in the cards (who was I kidding, I can barely lift the mallet at the strongman carnival game), and I went back to my trusty hammer to take tiles off the floor. A full day of construction is a far cry from the work I do, and even though I exercise and lift, I felt muscles ache that night that I never knew existed.

Leaving Base

On my last night, they screened a short film that Jules (one of the volunteers I met my first day) had made. All kinds of talents with this squad! Afterwards we heard from Pastor Baillou of St. Francis, a school that All Hands had worked on, that also served as the base on the island when AHAH first arrived. It was World Education Day, so the Pastor talked about all the barriers that children on the island had faced and will continue to struggle with in the wake of the hurricane. He got choked up as he talked about all of the work that All Hands has done for the local schools. “Thank you for struggling with us.”

We also got to hear from a family of 8 (all present). All Hands had started working on residential homes, removing debris, gutting, and sanitizing in November, but the very first residential roof AHAH completed was theirs.

Basically, it felt like a million onions had been cut in the room that night.

There were rainbows after every rain in The Bahamas. This is St. Francis, first AHAH home base. // Photo by me (Trish Fontanilla)

We closed out with goodbyes. Every volunteer that leaves base gets called up to say a few words. I apologized for not being able to stay longer. Since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day had been that Monday in the States, I talked about how MLK’s The Drum Major Instinct is one of my favorite sermons. “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” I thanked everyone for allowing me to bask in their greatness, and promised to hit my birthday goal of $3,200 to support them and the incredibly resilient community in the Bahamas. And going back to rooftops, it’s actually about $3,400 to repair one there.

As of this moment, I am ~$650 away from my goal, but have extended my fundraising time since I started it later. I, like everyone else, was horrified by what was happening in Australia earlier this year, so I waited to post until the fires had been somewhat contained. And as a side note, All Hands recently announced that they’ll be heading to Australia to set up base there.

Sky over base the morning the morning that I left. // Photo taken by me (Trish Fontanilla)

AHAH has committed to being in The Bahamas for at least two years, and as of January 28, 2020, the island has seen 3,781 work days from AHAH volunteers. Those volunteers have worked on 8 schools, done 43 muck and guts, 24 sanitizations, and 6 rooftops.

Every little bit counts. If you can share this, that would be great. If you can donate and share, that would be wonderful. If you can’t do either but can spare a moment of silence to send good energy in the direction of The Bahamas, amazing.

Thank you for taking time to read this. It took me awhile to write because honestly, it took awhile to process what I’d seen. While my second disaster relief trip was easier in a lot of ways, it was much harder as well. But will I volunteer with AHAH again? Absolutely. And if you’re considering volunteering there (or with AHAH in general) and I can answer any questions, please let me know. Sending you and your families love and light.

Oh and I wanted to extend a very special thanks to everyone that’s donated, and to Katherine Y., Bob C., Molly F., Shonak P., Pushpa P., and Tejal P. for helping me get to The Bahamas and for all the gear I was able to bring and donate.

Speaking of donate, here’s a link to my birthday fundraiser : http://bit.ly/trishbdayfundraiser2020

Trish Fontanilla

Written by

Community & customer experience consultant + local food lover + pie afficionado. Always pay it forward. And carry construction paper.

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