Travel the World in 450 days
Typhoon Haiyan has been the most powerful storm that shattered the Philippines on November 8th, 2013. We were visiting Japan at that time and wanted to help. I contacted many volunteer organizations and friends from the Philippines. After two weeks of searching, I finally gave up. Filipino friends and their families knew nothing, many volunteer organizations asked me to pay for the “opportunity”, to some we didn’t qualify, and Red Cross we didn’t even try due to bad reputation in the Philippines.
I came across All Hands Volunteers in a google search; even though, I filled out their brief application and didn’t even give another thought that I will hear back. Surprisingly, 2 weeks later, someone contacted us from London office with an apology in the delay and offered us two weeks (our choice) to volunteer in the city of Ormoc. The only requirement was to pay for your travels, to have medical insurance, to bring some gloves and work boots, mosquito net and some comfort food. It was so simple! We completed all their requirements in few hours and always had a contact for additional questions. We also joined All Hands Project Leyte Facebook Page where volunteers participating in the project communicate between each other.
December 17th, 2013 was our first night as volunteers! We were met by a groups of wonderful people. Everyone greeted us cheerfully, showed us around, and explained the house rules. Our camp was located across the street from the hospital. Someone told us its was an old boarding house for the nurses. After the typhoon the roof was gone. First volunteers helped to put the roof back on, scrubbed the walls and the floors. Cleared the back yard for additional room to put our tents. Second floor has one big open space divided in three parts; thus all volunteers had their mattresses or sleeping bags spread out over the bunk beds and it became a home for a while.
We got a space to sleep in a backyard, in a 2 person tent. It was great, but loud because of dogs, roosters as well as generators in the neighborhood and the street traffic. Only the downtown area had the electricity. We had only generator power for few hours a day, but half of the time it was broken. Some faucets had running water but none for the toilets or the showers. Everyone used a bucket of cold water for a shower without complains. Water would come and go, thus we had to save at times: 1/2 a bucket to flush a toilet and another half to shower.
We were lucky – we have been told, most of the people have no water, no electricity and sleep under the open sky. Its was a rainy season – raining almost every day, at least once and frankly heavy.
Our fist day on the job! After our oatmeal, peanut butter and jelly sandwich breakfast we joined a team going to a local school. When we arrived to the elementary school, all the children where greeting us with a cheerful “hello” and with many smiles. We had to remove some rubble, wood, bring down some walls with a sledge-hammer and remove safely partially collapsed roof. We cleared the stage so children could have their Christmas performance during the upcoming week. The work was hard since there was no shade and had to do quite a big of heavy lifting and sledge hammering. Everyone worked really hard in the blasting sun, many of us got burned and showed mild signs of hyponatremia, but we all had a lot of fun.
Once we got home, our surprise was 3 min cold water showers. It was a blast! Dinner was served and we had our daily meeting at 5:30 pm. Each team leader would speak about their day, new people would be introduced, the ones who leave would say goodbye, we would go over few clarifications, and finally the plans for the next day.
Team leaders are volunteers who have spent a week or two in the field and take up responsibility to lead the team. Each one of them did an impressive work by leading the team, motivating, inspiring and always working hand in hand with their team.
At night, many volunteers would go out to local bars to have a drink or two and just to chill. There was a hotel were others could go to use a wifi or a swim.
Our next 2 days were even more rewarding. We teamed up with the Red Cross and helped to clean the hospital. Hospital was severely destroyed during the typhoon. The roof, the walls and part of windows were all gone. The basement was flooded. This is a hospital from the back.
It was very difficult for everyone to walk into the hospital and to see so many people lying on the stretchers in the hallways. Patients looked so sick, but laid quietly without making a sound. Families were near by to help. But there were no IV pumps, no fancy machinery, or other medical supplies.
We cleaned the walls, the ceiling, the bathrooms, each and one of the beds and the cabinets. It was so much work to clear the damage done by flooding water. After two days we finished the basement and the first floor. Finally, the sick ones were able to move into the patient rooms.
During the following days we continued to work in a different teams. Some were helping at a local library, a church or a school. Different teams continued on helping out at the hospital. Some patients needed to be transported, additional units needed to be prepared; moreover, their morgue got a new roof placed by our volunteers.
Few days we worked in a neighborhood called Ipil. There was a huge sugar cane mill factory that was unstable for some time before the storm. About a year ago people from the neighborhood send a letter to the government asking to remove the unstable towers of the factory, but no one ever done anything. The structure collapsed during the storm destroying multiple houses and closing off the road. No one knows if that huge metal structure will ever be removed.
We worked on multiple houses in the neighborhood that were destroyed by the wind and the trees collapsed over their roofs; however, we could not do anything about the metal structure. People in the neighborhood were extremely grateful and some were greatly surprised that some foreigners came to help voluntarily.
One evening we took a tricycle to downtown are and once the driver overheard us talking that we volunteer refused to take any payment from us, he said: “Thank you for helping us”. That was so sweet and his kind gesture still means a lot to us to us. Everywhere we worked owners would bring us crackers, sweet bread and coke to drink, it was simple but so appreciated! Even neighbors who would be standing there and observing us, would invite us to sit in the shade. Many times people would just jump in to help, and children were always there eagerly waiting to be invited to help.
A day before Christmas Eve, we were all divided in groups and participated in the schools during their last day before a Christmas break, Children played many games and we joined in. Everyone treated us with plenty of food saying thanks.
On Christmas Eve we went to the epicenter of the typhoon, the city of Tacloban. The devastation we saw there was surreal! There is some recovery work being done but only by people themselves with a help from the family. We saw only one truck removing garbage off the streets, but there is so much garbage – everywhere. Individual houses or multiple blocks of houses are totally flattened to the ground. We saw a ship that transports containers with goods – on the ground and in the middle of the neighborhood. Something like this you get to see only in a horror movie, and these people live it – every minute of it.
There whole ground was layered with pieces of clothing, broken domestic goods and other debris. Everything is scattered all over. We all had goosebumps looking around. I felt guilty taking pictures but this is something that I want to share with others, so they could see why donations and that All Hands are vital here. The government isn’t going around and helping these individuals, but All Hands can. All Hands organization comes to the affected area and they stay for up to six months in the area and every day, except Sundays, go around and try to help people in need by deconstructing their homes or schools, even cleaning neighborhoods or water canals if needed. All Hands even go into the neighborhoods and approach the people, they even set up 2 information booths in the city where people are welcome to ask for help. Each volunteer served as an ambassador to the organization, if someone approached us asking for help, we would write all the information down and All Hands assessor would go in and assess the place.
There is a plan to open another base at Tacloban, since the city is becoming organized again and there is more order. There are so many people who want to volunteer and never get accepted, but All Hands is a chance for all.
One afternoon we went to the small village where we helped a very old couple to removed collapsed bamboo structure due to a fallen tree, we collected garbage and placed a plastic roof over their house. Their house was just a roof, there were no walls. They cook by burning wood on the side of the bamboo house. There was no bed for them to sleep, No furniture – just one wooden bench, some empty plastic containers or bags lying around – basically garbage. Their whole house was maybe 2 by 2 meters. They looked very old, skinny and frail without the family around.
The whole village was maybe about 50 bamboo houses. On top of the mountain overlooking the valley of palm trees and rice fields. In the distance you could see the ocean. There were so many children. Children were everywhere we go! As soon as we arrive they just all appear and start playing with our bus, climb on it and always laugh and say hello.
As one teacher had told us, the birth rate of children in the Philippines is very high and especially in the province. There are not enough schools for all children to go to. Teaches sometimes have up to 63 students per class. In some schools children had to go to school in 3 shifts, because some buildings are still not fit for use. January is a rainy season and it is time to plant the rice. As some one explained, many children will miss school some days since they will go to fields to help their families to plant the rice during the season.
Volunteering with all hands has been a very rewarding experience. Our pictures were sad and it can’t describe the devastation and the great need of locals. But hope is there, one sign read: “We are roofless, homeless, but not HOPEless”.
There are many reasons why we were not fans of the Red Cross. When all 50 of us were sleeping in bunk beds or tents outside and share a bus to get to our work site; the Red Cross staff stay in the best hotel in the center of the city and have imported private air-conditioned cars to get around. All Red Cross employes, from doctors to electrical technicians, have a private room to sleep in. Their base is also set up in the conference rooms of the hotel. So this is where the donor money goes to.
Volunteering we did left a huge impact in our lives as well! All Hands organization is impressive, staff is exceptionally organized, highly motivated and affective. Most people who come to volunteer work with passion and fired up to do things day after day. Work wasn’t easy, every day we were on a very tight schedule. By 7:15am we were already in the buses and leaving our camp site.
We worked with our hands and did tons of heavy lifting and sledge hammering. We were all bruised up and quite sore.
But, the whole experience was so unique and so rewarding! At the end of each exhausting day we all sat around the tables having dinner like one big family. We talked about our experience, jobs we have done and discussed what else we can do the next day to help. Lots of enthusiasm, motivation, and passion to make a difference by doing small things. Locals were very grateful to us as well. When they would see us coming, they would wave at us and said “hi and thank you”. It was emotional at times. Some young people teared up when it was time for them to leave, most come back for second or third time to volunteer.
This has been the greatest volunteer experience and something that I would like to do again!
If you like to join to volunteer please do so! But if you can please donate this organization – you can donate to our fundraising page or organization directly. Even few dollars go far.