How to Volunteer in the Virgin Islands!

Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

photo by William Stelzer

When I agreed to write about volunteer tourism, I thought it would be a straight forward article on how to join a group to help rebuild the Virgin Islands. As it turns out, volunteering is a complicated subject. Like most things, you can go through the official chain of command, or you can go directly to the source.

If I wanted to simplify the information for both you and me, I could direct you to the national clearinghouse for volunteers and suggest that they would assign you a job and a place to stay. In fact, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (National VOAD) will take your information, run a background check on you, and maybe place you on a task force at some point. However, my sources on the ground in the VI tell me that is not how it works.

What is a VOAD?

Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

photo by William Stelzer

Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) are non-profit organizations that include hundreds, if not thousands of groups, including such well-knowns as Red Cross and The Salvation Army. These groups and divisions of larger relief organizations are considered second-responder units. VOADs facilitate long-term recovery in disaster-stricken areas. When not active in times of disaster, VOADs promote preparedness and training. There are 56 state/territories VOADs. However, any organization that forms for disaster response can be called a VOAD.

Register with the National VOAD and your skills will be matched with a job available at one of the official state, territory, or private VOADs that have a charter with the federal government. Once assessed and vetted, you will be deployed through that chosen organization. The caveat is that the group needs to be involved with onsite recovery and mitigation. Most charter VOADs currently are not. You may wait forever.

A message from the USVI VOAD Online Service warns, “Just a friendly reminder to please BE PATIENT. You will be contacted once public officials and disaster relief organizations have had an opportunity to assess the damage and identify what the specific unmet needs are. There will be volunteer needs for many months, and years, after the disaster, so sign up today!”

Independent Action

If you want to ignore that suggestion and self-deploy…don’t, you need to do your homework. Recovery is the process of returning to normal. Volunteers that travel to a disaster zone choose to remove themselves from their own day-to-day normality and immerse themselves in the chaos and upheaval of those affected. To arrive unprepared and without a plan is to add to the chaos.

“Recovery is not only about the restoration of structures, systems, and services – although they are critical. A successful recovery is also about individuals and families being able to rebound from their losses, and sustain their physical, social and economic well-being.”

How to Prepare

Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

Photo by William Stelzer

Volunteering is a personally rewarding experience but don’t leap without looking. Only book your tickets if you have a volunteer position and place to go. If your skills are in construction management, engineering, or heavy equipment operation, reach out to businesses, organizations, or individuals that may need your help through their websites, LinkedIn, or by posting your services on one of the many post-Irma/Maria social media groups.

You can start your inquiries with the Virgin Islands or St. John Community Foundations or VI Strong.

For What To Do’s complete directory of relief organizations, click here.

Those with medical or counseling skills can contact public health agencies, hospitals, or clinics directly. Those with administrative, media, or public relations skill might be of better service from a remote location, but you know best. Do your due diligence.

The most immediate and successful volunteer action that I’m aware of is by friends and family for friends and family. This is effective because personal relationships are stronger than most organizational ones. If you are invited by a friend or family member to work, you are assured of shelter, food, and accurate information.

Be aware that there are shortages in housing and critical supplies like gasoline. Many roads are still impassible. Some areas have power and communications restored, but many do not. Medical facilitates, airports, and inter-island ferries are operating at a diminished capacity. Hotels and restaurants are reopening and will welcome your business but do not expect vacation-like conditions.

Before you self-deploy:

  • Write or call to confirm that you have a volunteer position.
  • Learn exactly what will be expected of you and what your hours will be.
  • Find out if accommodations and food are provided with your volunteer position or if you are expected to cook for yourself and find your own place to stay.
  • Ask what supplies you need to bring with you.
  • Make sure you have a full supply of medication or personal items for the duration of your stay.
  • Get a list of relief supplies that you can check as baggage.
  • Be clear with friends, family, and employers that communication may be limited.
  • Make a plan for ongoing family and home needs like child care and pet care before you go.
  • Prepare for safety or health hazards you might face as you respond.
  • Get contact information for medical and police agencies that can assist you in an emergency.

Burnout and Stress

Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

photo by William Stelzer

Many of the residents of the islands are experiencing symptoms of PTSD. As a responder, you too will be subjected to the effects of stress. This is called secondary traumatic stress. Although the sense of purpose and community gained from volunteering can be an enormous high, the accompanying lows can be crippling. Coping techniques like taking breaks, eating healthy foods, exercising, and abstaining from intoxicants can help prevent or reduce burnout and traumatic stress.

Learn to recognize the signs of both of these conditions in yourself and others including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation, irritability, or hostility
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Nightmares or insomnia

The National VOAD recommends the following practices:

  • Try to limit working hours to no longer than 12-hour shifts.
  • Work in teams and limit amount of time working alone.
  • Write in a journal.
  • Talk to family, friends, supervisors, and teammates about your feelings and experiences.
  • Practice breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep and exercise.
  • Know that it is okay to draw boundaries and say “no.”
  • Avoid or limit caffeine and use of alcohol or drugs.

Remind yourself:

  • It is not selfish to take breaks.
  • The needs of survivors are not more important than your own needs and well-being.
  • Working all of the time does not mean you will make your best contribution.
Virgin Islands Recovery Volunteers

photo by William Stelzer

Destruction, although rarely welcomed, often results in the opportunity for people, communities, and businesses to return stronger, smarter, and more integrated. The healing process has begun for the Virgin Islands. The green is returning to the landscape, businesses are opening their doors, and a deep sense of joy and pride is blooming in the people who have refused to abandon their island-in-need. Full recovery will take months or even years, but with your help, donations, and care, it is guaranteed.

For What To Do’s complete directory of relief organizations, click here.

Catherine Turner
Catherine TurnerCatherine Turner is a freelance writer and editor formerly based in the Virgin Islands. Her contributions have appeared in many publications including the St. John Tradewinds, Caribbean Travel and Life, Onboard Online Magazine, and the Elephant Journal. In a former incarnation, Catherine was a nightclub owner and a resort showgirl. A lifetime ago, she spent a decade chained to a desk as a computer programmer/data analyst. Catherine recently completed her first novel Carnival Carib. See more of her work at catherineturner.media

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