After a few weeks in Burma, I returned once again to Bangkok to prepare for an experience I’d been seeking out for awhile. I was headed to the Philippines to volunteer with All Hands, an international aid organization that started Project Leyte in order to help the people of Tacloban City after Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda). This super typhoon displaced some 4 million people and wreaked absolute havoc on the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas region. During my week in Bangkok, apart from exploring more of the city’s legendary street food, I stocked up on the items most essential at base: plenty of mosquito spray, a mosquito net, rehydration salts, and work gear. By October 8th, I was off for Tacloban City to join All Hands.
Settling into base was intimidating – I was greeted by a group of sixty volunteers who all seemed to click and know each other like a tight-knit family already. I soon realized that this happens very quickly here. You’re around each other 24/7 – living together in small dormitories, dining communally, and working side by side eight hours a day, six days a week. My state of intimidation turned to utter euphoria. By the end of week one I was settled in and wholly immersed in the project. There’s an intense and abundant energy that flows here. People are motivated, they’re living with intention, and there’s a strong and intimate connection to the community that’s being served. And the locals of Tacloban – they’re another breed. The warmth with which I was received astounded me. The people give their thanks through radiating ear-to-ear smiles, heart-wrenching stories of their loss, and warm words of appreciation. To say that their resilience is inspiring would be a colossal understatement.
There were quite a few sites that were in the works during my three weeks at Project Leyte:
Anibong // This is a waterfront barangay (neighborhood) that was devastated by the storm surge. The massive ships that washed up ashore are evidence of the typhoon’s sheer power. The barangay’s local elementary school was rendered unstable following the typhoon, and we assisted local workers in the deconstruction of the old structure and foundation digging/pouring of the new. Working at this site made me seriously appreciate the manual laborers who do this stuff day-in day-out. In developed countries, we’d use a tractor to dig ten of these massive 50″ x 50″ x 50″ holes in the compacted dirt. Doing this by shovel and rockbar is a whole ‘nother deal though.
That’s the lower half of a huge 100 foot vessel that washed ashore during the storm surge. The bow of the ship can be seen towering over the main street in the photo below.
New Kawayan // This is a transitional housing community built by the local government that All Hands was making improvements to, primarily digging gradient trenches to avoid stagnant water (dengue is a huge risk). The locals housed here were always lovely to us. This site presented me with the humbling opportunity to meet some of those most affected by the typhoon, which made the work that much more redeeming.
Tzu Chi //All Hands provided a team of laborers to the Tzu Chi Foundation, a massively funded Buddhist organization out of Taiwan. This worksite was a blast. We were alongside tons of local workers, putting together two and three bedroom transitional homes.
San Isidro // Another transitional housing community that All Hands and local workers coordinated together on.
Decon for the Kids // At this site, we helped an orphanage clean and clear their property of debris, so that they could build a soccer field for the kids. Awesome site!
We were told by the owner of the orphanage that when the storm surge was hitting it reached the top of those shipping containers in the background. He and the orphans waited on the roof of the orphanage for hours for the water level to drop. Unbelievable
The culmination of my time volunteering with All Hands was on November 8th, 2014 – the one year anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan. The day started out with a 5 AM walk to the city astrodome – where survivors gathered and lived after the typhoon – and it ended with a candlelight memorial that stretched region-wide. The city was bustling with energy, and to my surprise, everyone was smiling and almost seemed to be celebrating. This day was a really a wonderful way to end my time at All Hands, and it reassured me that I’d spent the previous four weeks very wisely.
To the volunteers I shared my experience with at Project Leyte, thanks for being so kickass. I can’t think of any other time in my life where I’ve been surrounded by so many genuinely great people. This is a memory I look back on daily and hold very close to my heart.
And to all who contributed to my fundraising, I really appreciate it. My time on Project Leyte was easily the most enriching experience I’ve ever had, and I feel proud to have friends and family that helped support this community that I grew to love.
If you’re interested in volunteering on Project Leyte (free bed and meals, helluva deal!), or you just want to learn more about the Leyte typhoon response, peep the All Hands website.