After spending so much time, 6 months in total over the past year, on an international All Hands project in Nepal, I was curious to experience a domestic project so as I planned my annual springtime trip home to California I tacked on an extra month in the states and headed down to the All Hands project in Louisiana to be a volunteer team leader. My main expectations heading into this were that there would be many more safety regulations and I thought it would be convenient to speak the same language as the beneficiary community.
The work we were doing in southeastern Louisiana included tarping roofs, removing debris, and mucking, gutting, and sanitizing homes that were impacted by severe storms and flash flooding in March. Because the flood waters receded so quickly the area did not get much attention from the nationwide media and thus didn’t receive much help in the form of volunteers or donations. All Hands is the last group in the area offering free flood assistance.
In Nepal I lived on 4 difference bases and experienced All Hands work during both the response and recovery (rebuild) phases and in many ways this project felt familiar. This is likely because the general atmosphere that All Hands creates is like that of a summer camp with all your wacky, far flung cousins.
The main differences I felt were due to the type of volunteers on base. Most of our volunteers were NCCC AmeriCorp members and were between 18-24. I used to work for an afterschool program and living with 30 NCCC members felt like living in a grownup version of that same program. It wasn’t about age though, as many of the closest friends I’ve made on project fall into this age group, but attitude. Many of the NCCC did not have a highly developed work ethic and I have realized that I judge volunteers based on their work ethic. While I am well aware that everyone’s 100% looks different, I have never seen people so resistant to doing tasks they didn’t enjoy or work so hard at pretending to work. I had people fake injuries to get out of working or “forget” their PPE (personal protective equipment) in hopes of getting out of work and I just wished all that energy could have been focused on something productive. Like the work we were there to do!!
What outshone the fakers and long water breakers were the real NCCC all-stars. Their efforts carried the project forward and they worked their asses off. They were the first ones out in the morning to help pack tools into vehicles, the first to jump on a task and the ones I had to force to take breaks. They had fun learning, loved to work, and helped me do quality control on homes before we considered the job completed. Also they kept the team laughing with their inquisitive questions, jokes and silly antics. They were the ones who kept me and everyone else sane.
Its easy to get hurt on site, that’s why wearing PPE is so important, yet seemingly no amount of PPE could protect me from a few mishaps. First day team leading a new site, I am poking at a floorboard adjacent to a rotten section, showing the team where not to step, when the wood crumbles and my foot crashes through to the ground below. Just a few scrapes and a good laugh out of that one.
A few weeks later while rolling up sections of fencing about half a dozen ants feasted on my arm. The next day, after I scratching the hell out of it in my sleep, my arm was swollen up and pretty gross looking.
The funniest mishap by far was when I accidentally sucked up one of my boobs with a vacuum. Yep, you read that correctly. I was holding the hose at chest height and when I bent down to turn on the vac it just sucked one up. My immediate reaction was to pull the hose off, which didn’t do anything but stretch out my boob, so I quickly shut off the vac and turned to see if there had been any witnesses. Nope, no one saw and I didn’t share the story with my team until later that night.
In Louisiana I had the opportunity through All Hands to help with a few special events. Just after I arrived we headed down to New Orleans to help promote Give NOLA Day which, despite the technical glitches with the donation site, raised over 3.5 million to support hundreds of nonprofits in the greater NOLA area. Just before I left I traveled to the state capital to help represent All Hands while a resolution honoring their work was presented in the House of Representatives. It was interesting because it looked like people were only half paying attention, but when we were announced many stood and clapped in appreciation for the work we’ve been doing.
As far as my expectations went, yes we had many more safety requirements, which considering the work we were doing and the tools we were using I feel was appropriate. As far as speaking the same language as the beneficiary community, well that’s a little tricky. That Louisiana accent can be real difficult to understand.
All in all I had a good, productive time in Louisiana with All Hands, but I likely won’t be back on another domestic project anytime soon. Why? Well, because Tee can’t easily come to projects in the states and being apart for this long is no fun. We both love All Hands so any bets on how long it’ll be before we’re back on project?