I’ve been working for All Hands Volunteers (AHV), an NGO that addresses immediate and long term needs within communities affected by natural disasters – in this case in response to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the west coast of Ecuador on 16th April, 2016.
Within a few days of the earthquake, AHV set to work building temporary shelters, carrying out demolition, rubble clearing and rebuilding in various communities in the affected region. It’s a one-of-a-kind working and living environment, with people arriving from all corners of the world to our beachside base in Canoa, lured in by a unifying desire to help. All Hands Volunteers is one of few organisations that welcomes volunteers regardless of their previous experience.
Some stay for months, others can only spare a few days, but all contribute to the undeniable energy and unwavering work ethic here.
The majority of volunteers work in construction or preparing bamboo for the houses that are underway. In July, AHV began constructing permanent homes for San Miguel de Briceño, a community that was badly hit but has received little aid. The seismic-resistant houses have been beautifully designed using locally-sourced, sustainable materials – mostly bamboo, and a roof that incorporates recycled plastic – by an architect who worked with AHV in the Philippines.
As one of few Spanish-speaking volunteers I got involved early on in assisting the Beneficiary Coordinator with the task of deciding who we give these much-sought-after homes to. This would begin with visits to over 160 households to assess their living conditions and the disaster impact. Whilst my insatiable curiosity for anything and everything is what took me from a job in educational publishing to now building bamboo houses, carrying out community assessments was more up my street – I suspected I could contribute more in this way than I could with a drill or a machete. So, armed with a pile of surveys and a smile I donned my bright blue ‘All Hands’ shirt and set out into the cotton fields.
San Miguel de Briceño is a community with no water supply, a low literacy rate and high unemployment. Most families are headed by a man who works with a machete in the cotton or corn fields in harvest season, with an average family of 4 living on just $50 a week. I had a short amount of time with each household in which to elicit a great deal of information, and all in a foreign language.
The families saw this as their only chance to communicate their plight, convince me that they were the most deserving of our help and many, no doubt out of sheer desperation, could be somewhat ‘flexible’ with the truth.
I questioned and listened quickly and relentlessly, throwing sporadic, surreptitious glances towards my watch or the ominous dog/giant turkey beside me, as I enquired as to their income, sanitation, education, and the level of damage their homes had sustained. Under barbed wire fences and through corn fields I clambered, towards every makeshift shelter or tent I could make out.
I scribbled pages of notes from the hammock, broken toilet bowl, bucket or pile of rotten wood on which I was invited to sit on, watched on by wide-eyed children who played amongst the modest possessions that each family had salvaged. Whilst never knowing if the next person I met would be effusive, hesitant or indifferent, I could be certain that all would offer me something – a papaya, corn bread, a carrot off their floor… a piglet, perhaps.
For two weeks, I walked the dusty roads and fields of San Miguel de Briceño, its every bend, every shortcut, every family affiliation or feud now forever known to me, in a community I had never heard of a month before.
Emotions were set aside and new friends and faces reduced to figures once the evaluation stage came around, as we embarked on a complex and lengthy analysis of the data we had brought in. Though resources are limited, there are families that we can and will help, and as we give each the good news it is an extraordinary feeling.
Being able to provide a new start to a disabled widower with young children, who watched us work in awe for days on end, then seeing them step inside their new home for the first time. Sitting beside an elderly man and his bedridden wife and having them reach out to hold my hand as I describe the help we can give them, knowing that he’d recently had to pull down the home they had lived in their whole lives, piece by piece.
It is a magnificent thing to be a part of, with the construction phase provoking countless more touching moments, as we work together with the beneficiaries to understand their needs, or even ask them to point out where they’d like their new front door to be.
For almost two months now, our trucks have been pulling up each morning and a bright blue army of volunteers has hopped out into San Miguel de Briceño. And with each day, a powerful exchange of kindness is taking place, one that I am certain will extend the overall outreach of our project far beyond the houses we are building.
A house won’t resolve water or literacy issues, but it will keep people safe and relieve financial pressure for some time. It will demonstrate alternative construction methods in a vulnerable region, whilst providing some employment for local people. And it will, we hope, give a much-needed boost to a community that has had its fair share of bad luck and felt forgotten for too long.
For more information, to apply to volunteer or to support the work All Hands Volunteers is doing, visit www.hands.org.
About the writer: Lily left London two years ago in search of adventure and never returned. When she’s not building bamboo houses in Ecuador or riding motorcycles in Myanmar she works as a freelance editor. Follow her on Instagram @lilyleftlondon or at lilyleftlondon.wordpress.com.