Hands On volunteers rebuild Bicol town

First posted 03:46:54 (Mla time) March 10, 2007
TJ Burgonio

STO. DOMINGO, Albay—Three schoolboys peered through the window’s bamboo slats as Barbara Lacy, Andrea Gillespie, Ninfa Bito and several others deftly applied green paint on wooden desks inside the decrepit classroom.

That task done, the group headed outdoors for some fresh air and then clambered up a bamboo ladder to get to the new tin roof, on which they brushed bright yellow paint.

They worked for hours, unmindful of the drizzle that gave way to searing heat.

Elsewhere, against the backdrop of a mist-shrouded Mayon Volcano, Jessica Kondratoff and a shirtless Tim Fudge vigorously shoveled four-meter-high black ash from the sides of a one-story concrete house.

Solomon Fombi and Norman Brackenridge hammered a tarpaulin onto the roof of another dwelling, and Ken Maher hopped from house to house, asking about the residents’ needs.

It was all in a day’s work for volunteers who had flown in from across the globe to help rebuild Sto. Domingo, which was battered by heavy rains and partly buried in mud when Supertyphoon “Reming” struck on Nov. 30, killing 55.

They are all members of Hands On Disaster Response (HODR), a US-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to disaster response and relief.

Community building

“What we try to do here is provide the community something that they need. It might not be as high in their list of things to repair, but by repairing it, you’re helping them regain their sense of community,” HODR operations director Marc Young, 46, told the Inquirer.

“It’s more of community building,” said the landscaper and diving instructor from Michigan.

The HODR found the right place in Sto. Domingo, a municipality off Albay Gulf that continues to grapple with the after-effects of Reming.

Roads carved in half are still unpaved. The thick lahar that flowed down Mayon’s slopes and obliterated villages, buried houses and green rice fields has yet to be cleared. Some houses and classrooms need roofs, and damaged fishing boats remain idle.

Nights are pitch-black in many barangays because power has yet to be restored.

“We try to find an area where we can have a big impact,” Young said, observing that Sto. Domingo had gotten less attention than its neighbors. “We don’t have the capability or funding to do large-scale projects. What we try to do is find projects where we can help numbers of people.”

Shoveling lahar

The first HODR team set up a center in a two-story house in San Isidro, the first barangay from the national highway, within a week after the disaster.

The volunteers have since fanned out across the town to dig out houses, roads and drainage pipes, nail tarps and GI sheets on the roofs of houses and schools, build partitions in classrooms, repair water pumps, and buy materials to fix damaged boats.

Residents who lost their farms and boats have benefited mostly from the lahar-shoveling project. They stay in their dug-out houses while awaiting relocation, and sell lahar as construction material at P700 to P800 per truckload.

“They have helped a lot of people here. I doubt if we can get the same help from Filipinos who are more interested in politics,” Joel Buen, 47, said as he watched the foreign volunteers shovel lahar from the sides of his house in San Isidro.

The HODR, which is mostly funded by private donors, has lined up lahar-shoveling, re-roofing and boat-building projects in other barangays between now and March 31, its last day of work in Sto. Domingo.

Daycare center

The paint job on the classroom in Barangay San Fernando that had been turned into a daycare center by the Department of Social Welfare and Development was just a finishing touch.

On that day, March 3, the volunteers, including Bito who is a Filipino, got help from Hands On Manila staff led by its president Gianna Montinola, Peace Corps volunteer Julia Campbell who is based in Legazpi City, and some schoolboys who were thrilled to work with them.

Days earlier, the volunteers nailed a new tin sheet to replace the rusty roof that had been blown off, installed bamboo slats on the window frames, and, with the help of preschoolers, painted the walls inside in blue and white.

The daycare center opened on Feb. 5, to the delight of the 76 preschoolers, their two teachers and barangay officials.

“Funds for the repair were hard to come by. Thanks to Hands On, we now have classes,” teacher Cheryl Banares, 44, said as she laid out the lunch she and her neighbors had prepared for the volunteers.


The HODR took shape in Thailand after the deadly tsunami in December 2004.

A group of American volunteers, including Young, decided to band together after months of building shelters for the survivors—and never looked back.

The ensuing months saw ever growing numbers of volunteers taking up their backpacks and flying to scenes of disaster—Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane “Katrina” in 2005, Indonesia after an earthquake in 2006 and now, Albay.

For some volunteers accustomed to cold weather, shoveling lahar or doing carpentry under the blazing sun is a tough experience.

Canadian broadcasting graduate Kondratoff said she had to adjust to the heat and work at the same time.

“This is the hottest I’ve ever been in my life. In our place, the warmest is 20 degrees Celsius,” said Kondratoff, 22, as she waited for her turn at the shower. “The physical work was tough. But I’m now used to it.”

Said the Irish banker Lacy, 35: “It’s much harder in Indonesia, where we had to shovel bricks into sacks, and carry them.”

The volunteers live in spartan conditions in their rented two-story house.

After work six days a week, they pump water for their own use and take a shower in a bathroom inside or in a two-door makeshift booth on the front lawn.

At 10 p.m., they have to be in bed in either of the two rooms, or on the porch in the upper floor, because that’s when the generator is turned off. They get up at 7 a.m.

No complaints

But nobody’s complaining.

“The hardest part for me is having to tell someone that we can’t help them,” Young said when asked about the toughest part of the job.

He recalled rejecting some requests because these would serve only a family, and not a community.

At the time of the Inquirer visit, the contingent of around 15 volunteers from the United States, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Cameroon (their number varies because some leave and new ones fly in), appeared to be getting by, thanks to the community’s cheerful support.

At the work sites, it is not uncommon for boys and girls to turn up, pick up a paint brush or a shovel, or haul off a lahar-filled wheelbarrow.

But what gives the volunteers a kick is the sight of neighborhood kids waving and calling out their names as they trudge home in their grimy Hands On T-shirts and muddied boots after a hard day’s work.

“You walk down the street, and you’re like a rock star. The people just love the fact that we’re here from all over the world to help them in their community. The rewards are just massive,” Young said.

Of the volunteers, Fombi, 33, a stocky electrical engineer from Cameroon who worked in Darfur last year delivering boxes of medicine to communities, is the most popular. He is seen exchanging high fives with children everywhere he goes.

“The kids called him Michael Jordan—until they saw him play,” Kondratoff said, laughing.

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