What it's Like to Volunteer Abroad

What it's like to volunteer abroad

Alistair Bremnath

Every year, thousands of travelers choose to volunteer abroad during their time off, pitching in at spots around the world. For two weeks in January, I was one of them.

I volunteered with a Boston-based non-profit organization, All Hands Volunteers, in Léogâne, Haiti, the city closest to the epicenter of last year's earthquake, where some 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed and thousands of lives were lost.

My decision to volunteer abroad came from a vague longing to "do something" other than sit in front of my laptop, followed by an exhaustive Google search that lead me to All Hands. The organization, formerly called Hands On Disaster Relief, started in 2005 when founder David Campbell flew to Thailand in the wake of the Southeast Asian tsunami to help. Since then, All Hands has been in Iowa as well as Indonesia, and the organization did hurricane flooding relief work in Gonaives, Haiti. I liked the way Project Leogane functioned–you got yourself to Haiti and agreed to work seven hours a day, six days a week. All Hands would provide a safe place to live and three modest meals a day. There were no fees involved with signing up, though donations were naturally welcome.

Leaving for Haiti, media reports and the State Department's warnings left me unsure of how I would be received in the country, and if I could actually contribute anything. I decided to go and see for myself. I am still processing the experience–one of the best things I've ever been a part of, for sure, but a hard thing to describe. I think about all the work still being done in Haiti and I already know I want to go back. Especially thanks to all the people I met.

What it's like to volunteer abroad

Terry (right) with volunteers Fana and Rose-Daphney; Terry Ward.

Prior to Spence, a builder from Boston, decided to go to Haiti to volunteer after losing a childhood friend in the rubble of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Emily, 18, had saved money for a year while working as a barista at a Manhattan Starbucks to come help in Haiti. Back home in Queens, she lived in a homeless shelter. There was a cancer survivor in his early 50s who had been in Haiti for months and said that now, in life, he had "only ups, no downs." I met a man from St. Louis who plays poker for a living and spent his winnings on coming to Haiti to volunteer. It was his second time in the country with All Hands. His parents reminded him that, after this trip, it was time to get a "real job."

There were Haitian volunteers as well. Vlad, from Léogâne, lost the love of his life in the earthquake. Her family couldn't bear to tell him until six months after the catastrophe. Of course, he already knew it in his heart. A Haitian girl named Fana, who had the biggest smile you've ever seen, had lost her younger brother to a blood disease the day before the earthquake. She said that it was his passing that changed where she might have otherwise been on that day, saving her life.

Robinson, a 23-year-old who loves Christian music and playing the trumpet, had survived the earthquake along with his family. He had already volunteered with All Hands before, during hurricane flooding in Gonaives that badly damaged his family's home. And there was Alexandra, 20, who I met on the street when I was working at the mass gravesite helping build a memorial fence. She and her family had been displaced from near Port-au-Prince to a tent camp outside Léogâne in the days after the earthquake. She always wore little plastic flower earrings that perfectly matched her shirt, and when I complimented them, she went to pull them from her ears as a gift.

The stories were everywhere.

The All Hands driver who picked me up from the airport in Port-au-Prince for the 20-mile ride to Léogâne (an hour an a half away, on a good day) told me he lost his 14-year-old son in the catastrophe. As I watched the scenes of destruction in the capital as we navigated its crowded, fissured streets-the collapsed presidential palace, the homes that looked like they had tumbled only seconds before–I admitted to him I'd had some trepidations about coming to volunteer. Many in the aid world say that sending your money is worth more than any work you could physically contribute–that coming to Haiti to help, no matter how good the intentions, meant overburdening a very burdened place. "The money that was sent here, we won't see it," the driver told me flatly, in French. "By showing you are not afraid to come here to help, it is worth more than money. It is worth your life."

What it's like to volunteer abroad

The All Hands base in Leogane has bunk beds and rooftop space for tents to house roughly 100 volunteers; Terry Ward.

At our base in Léogâne, I pitched a small tent amidst a sea of other volunteer encampments on the roof of the massive building. The large concrete structure, largely open to the elements, was in the process of being built as a nightclub when the earthquake struck. It weathered the quake well but remained unfinished, with rebar sprouting from rooftop support columns. There was housing for about 100 volunteers (there were around 70 when I was there). On the ground floor were several rows of bunk beds alongside a large concrete courtyard area that was often used as a staging ground for building projects (as well as impromptu basketball and hockey games). Another covered area next to the courtyard was crowded with Adirondack chairs, benches and tables built by the first volunteers to arrive after the earthquake as a lounge. The accommodations were bare-bones, as was expected. The shower block was a wall of stalls hung with blue tarps–large buckets and dipping bowls at the ready for cold showers at the end of the workday. In the toilet block, a separate area, the rules were simple-yellow, keep it mellow, otherwise, use a bucket filled with water collected from the dripping faucets to flush.

Meals were served buffet-style under a tent outside. For breakfast, there was coffee, cereal with powdered milk and small rounds of dense white Haitian bread to spread with spicy peanut butter and jelly. Lunch and dinner were usually some version of beans and rice, fried chicken or meat stewed with tomato sauce and onions (one small piece only was the rule), or spaghetti topped with ketchup spooned from a large can. There was always salad, too–watercress, iceberg lettuce and tomatoes (the one piece rule applied here as well).

A typical day of volunteering went like this: After a rather light sleep in my tent to a soundtrack of roosters that crowded through the night and the occasional beats of voodoo drumming or a nearby party, I'd emerge into the daylight around 6:30 am, splash water on my face, brush my teeth and spread some peanut butter on a piece of bread. At 7:30 am, the tap taps–colorful pickup trucks ubiquitous in Haiti and named for the tapping sound you make on the metal to indicate a requested stop–would arrive to transport volunteers to the day's work sites. The streets of Léogâne were a bustling place–kids in uniforms walking to school, pigs and goats snuffling in piles of rubbish, vendors perched behind piles of papayas and oranges near the market and the ubiquitous scent of burning trash in the gritty air. There were windows of open space where buildings had once been, and rubble still languished in piles, waiting to be picked up and taken away, though nobody seemed to know when and where.

At 11:30 am, we would return to the base for lunch. Then back to the work site until 4:30 pm, followed immediately by dinner and the nightly 5:30 pm meeting to recap the day's successes and failures and make work assignments for the next day (there was a mad rush to the signup board after the meeting to get on the jobsite of your choice).

After a heavenly bucket shower to rinse off the day's dust, there were a few options regarding how to spend the hours before All Hands' strict 10 pm curfew, when the generators would shut down for the night. I would join whoever was heading out for a Prestige beer and perhaps a game of dominoes at one of the local watering holes. Joe's Bar, next door to the base, was known for its salsa dancing nights. But beers were cheaper down the dirt road at one of the shack-style hangouts like Little Venice (named, I presume, for its location next to an open gutter clogged with plastic bottles) or Jackson Bar, where you grabbed your own cold drink from a refrigerator tipped on its side. The walk home was inky and starlit. Small shacks alongside the gutter lit with candles providing the only light lining the route. Then it was time to sleep and prepare for the next day's work.

What it's like to volunteer abroad

Alexandra (left), a local volunteer, and her family; Terry Ward.

I had the opportunity to get involved in a few different projects. I spent one day sifting gravel and washing sand needed to make the Biosand Water Filters that the organization installs at the homes of residents of the community (they even filter out cholera). Thomas, a young Haitian who worked with me that day, told me that when the earthquake struck he was eating sugarcane in the fields with a friend (they were supposed to have been at home doing homework). "I thought it was a tractor coming through the fields," he said, until the shaking made him fall down again and again.

Another day, I was a cog in an assembly line, heaving buckets of sand and gravel into a concrete mixer at the site of a school–the eighth that the organization is building, to date–in a community near Léogâne.

And I spent another morning at the baby orphanage with Robinson and Emily. The kids gathered around Robinson, who read a book in Creole about a turtle who had retreated into his shell after a very bad thing happened to him. Emily and I scooped up infants from the small, dark room where they lay two wide in cribs and carried them into the courtyard, sunlight streaming through the branches of a mango tree into their dark, startled eyes. Before we left, Robinson plugged an iPod into a small speaker and played the Waka Waka, Shakira's song from last summer's World Cup. The younger kids bobbed up and down and the older girls shook their hips, raised their arms and tossed back their heads, singing out loud, "If you get down get up, oh oh. When you get down get up, hey hey."

The project I worked on the most during my stay, however, was a memorial fence around the mass grave for earthquake victims in the center of Léogâne. A few weeks before the year anniversary of the earthquake, the mayor of Léogâne approached All Hands to ask for assistance designing and building the enclosure. On a plot of land smaller than a basketball court, some 2,000 people had found their final resting place when the UN had arrived, in the days after the earthquake, with the heavy machinery needed to excavate a gaping maw in the ground. Tap taps waiting for passengers now parked on top of it and animals nosed around in the rubbish that had accumulated on the mass grave. If you didn't see the metal cross placed there to honor the victims, you might not have known about the lives buried beneath.

For five days, I helped affix white pickets to slanted pieces of wood that would give the fence a waving look. A group of volunteers moved large rocks into place to form a Zen-like garden over the grave, and other teams mixed concrete for setting the posts. Sometimes, while we were working, residents of the community would come by to observe, compliment the project and pitch in. Most seemed to understand we were volunteers, but once someone asked me if I was getting paid to build the fence. He was looking for work, too, he said. I explained as well as I could that we were not paid, but I am not sure that he understood or believed.

"I have family buried here, more than one person," said another man. "The fence is beautiful. Now the area is more than a mass grave, c'est une place," he said in French, indicating that it was a place to be and reflect.

What it's like to volunteer abroad

Site leader Chris Mewes greets Leogane's adjunct mayor during a visit to the site the day before the quake's one year anniversary; Alistair Bremnath

On January 12, the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, Alexandra–the local girl I had gotten to know while building the memorial enclosure–came to the All Hands base to pick me up. She wanted to bring me to where she lived. We rode three deep on a moto taxi about 25 minutes outside of town, down a dusty dirt road lined with breadfruit trees, to the field where her family had been living in a tent since their home in Carrefour had crumbled to the ground. Alexandra introduced me to her mother, sister and two brothers, pointed to a cot donated by a French aid group where I should sit and placed a stub of a pencil into my hand so I could write down my contact information. We didn't stay long. A few minutes later, we rode back to Léogâne to join in a procession toward the site of the mass grave.

Alexandra looped an arm through mine as we walked along the street, past barbershops and churches, hardware stores and aid organizations–and piles of rubble and seas of tents where so many people were now living. Surrounding us were the residents of Léogâne and many of the All Hands volunteers from Haiti and around the world whom I had gotten to know a bit during my stay. The music of the brass band in front of us was rising, and with it a sea of voices, growing stronger.

"It's the song of Haiti," Alexandra told me in French, the national anthem, and she joined in.

"For our country, for our ancestors," she sang, "United, let us march."

January 12th Earthquake Memorial from All Hands Volunteers on Vimeo.

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