Thursday, December 21, 2017

Boots on the ground: Home from U.S. Virgin Islands with memento and more

WCC AmeriCorps members have been serving in the U.S. Virgin Islands for 30-days at a time since October, assisting communities in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Our teams are serving alongside All Hands, a local disaster relief organization. WCC AmeriCorps members return home this week from deployments to Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

By Erin Harris, Washington Conservation Corps AmeriCorps member

When I returned home from the U.S. Virgin Islands in October 2017, I came back with so much more than I brought with me.

My Danner boots now feel like an extension of my feet and my WCC uniform is forever stained from the hardest month of service I have ever endured. Most importantly, I’m bringing home a token from a homeowner I met, tucked safe in my backpack between my sleeping bag and medical kit.

My first project in the Virgin Islands was serving on a chainsaw crew removing large debris from survivors’ homes and yards. The first person we helped was an elderly, soft-spoken woman named Ms. Judy, who lost everything but her spirit in the storms. Hurricanes Irma and Maria had torn off most of her home’s roof and caved in the walls. Her yard was covered in downed trees, corrugated aluminum roofing, and household items.

Ms. Judy’s home and bedroom wall. Photo by Eli Varner.
Ms. Judy lived with Shareff, a middle-aged man and old family friend with the soul and spunk of a teen-ager. In exchange for meals and a place to live, Shareff provided Ms. Judy with transportation and protection. Along with a cat and four dogs, the two had moved their few belongings left into the only inhabitable structure remaining: A shed on the back of the property.

From an outsider’s perspective, the first thing that appeared to be missing was a refrigerator and a front door. But what Ms. Judy wanted back the most was her husband’s ashes. Part of our assignment was to recover them for her.

We spent five days in Ms. Judy’s yard. It wasn’t until our last day of service that we were able to find her late husband’s ashes and present them to her. With the rain cascading down, I couldn’t distinguish the fat drops from the tears on my face.

When we returned to cutting down the torn bedroom wall, I saw something bright under the house. It was a photo album that had been hidden until we moved the wall segments. The wall had protected the album from floods and rain. I grabbed the photo album and threw it under my shirt to prevent the ever-prevailing precipitation from causing damage.

AmeriCorps members clean the Joint Field Office on their final week.
Photo by Hunter Bowen.

I stood in the doorway of the shack, out of breath and shaking. Ms. Judy and Shareef were huddled together around the table as I delivered the photo album and watched anxiously as she opened it. Perhaps thanks were in order to the God Ms. Judy was always talking about because somehow the photo album was untouched by water and dirt. In a matter of seconds, we were all in tears again as Ms. Judy lovingly explained photos of her husband and children. She stood up and engulfed me in a long hug, all the while proclaiming that I was God’s gift to her.

Ms. Judy didn’t say goodbye to me; she knows I’ll be back to visit her soon. She blew me one last kiss as Shareef made his way down the driveway to us. Stopping just in front of me, he laid a beaded necklace with a large painted ‘VI’ emblem around my neck. He put his hands on my shoulders and told me that I’m special. Nothing else needed to be said as he repeated that sentence over and over.

Fighting back tears, I made my final promise to return for fishing lessons and with one last wave, I climbed into the car. For the rest of our deployment the necklace hung over my bed, reminding me of Shareef and Judy and the resiliency that they embody.

Back in Bellingham, the necklace has found a permanent home on my wall where it serves as a daily reminder of the Virgin Islands and the people I met there who changed my life.

WCC’s disaster response program

Long hours, unpredictable conditions and ultimately rewarding experiences serving communities in need often characterize WCC disaster response efforts. Deployments range from national to local disasters, supporting flood response and prevention, wildfire operations, hurricane assistance and more. Four of our WCC crews are designated disaster response crews, though any member has the potential to deploy.

Join the WCC

Do you want to help the environment, meet great people and make a difference in your community? Recruitment for six-month WCC AmeriCorps positions will open in January 2018! Lean more and apply online today. See photos of the types of projects WCC members support during their service in our WCC projects Flickr set and WCC featured projects story map.

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