Giving Back: My Volunteer Sabbatical Rebuilding Hurricane-Ravaged Schools

Photo of Rebecca Lashley

Hot roofing work1Over 20 years ago, as I prepared to take some downtime between undergrad and grad school, my world was forever changed when I was given the opportunity to volunteer at orphanages in Eastern Europe. Instead of packing my camping gear for the leisurely summer adventures I had planned with friends, I got my first passport, filled it with visas for Russia, Hungary, Ukraine, and Romania and hopped on my first international flight for six life-changing weeks. My passion for volunteering abroad was sparked and would eventually grow into an ever-present flame.

Last week, Raazi talked about Caiman's amazing sabbatical benefit. When my own sabbatical was coming up, I knew I wanted to dedicate some of the month to giving back abroad once again. While most of my work over the years in Eastern Europe, Peru, and Cambodia have been almost entirely focused on orphanages, my thoughts continued to drift to the post-hurricane devastation left by the Cat 5/Cat 4 double punch Hurricanes Irma and Maria had delivered to the Caribbean in September 2017. I set my sights on Puerto Rico but after numerous volunteer plans there fell through, the disaster response non-profit All Hands and Hearts offered me an opportunity to join their in-process efforts to help rebuild schools on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Everything fell into place confirming this was where I was meant to go.

Work Crew1After 2.5 days of travel due to flight delays, I joined a group of nearly 30 volunteers and staff from all over the world that were actively working on 3 school rebuilding projects. The projects consisted of a primary school (where we also lived), an autism center, and a daycare/pre-school. Some members of staff had been there virtually non-stop since 2 weeks after the hurricanes hit. The school projects were in some of the poorest areas of the island and had little to no funding resources for rebuilding, we were literally their only hope for rebuilding. Our teams worked 8 hour days, 6 days a week performing standard construction rebuilding work; framing and finishing roofs, hammer drilling damaged tiles for removal, securing new ceiling beams to the roof with hurricane straps, mixing concrete by hand, spackling prep for painting, etc. It was back-breaking, unglamorous work in 95+ degree heat with 100% humidity, so hot the soles of my steel-toed work boots disintegrated while working on the roof!

Some of the “leisurely” sabbatical activities I was able to personally provide while on Tortola were:

  • 600+ nails hand-hammered into support beams and hurricane straps to secure the new roofs.
  • Several 100 screws drilled into the new roof of the autism center.
  • 9 gallons of wall compound applied to ceilings and support beams in preparation for painting.
  • Countless batches of concrete hand-mixed for building new interior walls.
  • Raised nearly all of my $2,500 fundraising goal for construction supplies for these schools.
  • Buckets of sweat, smashed fingers/thumbs, scratches, scars, 1 dead pair of workbooks – but thankfully no major injuries!

As one of my colleagues blogged, today’s employees want to provide a positive impact to their community through volunteer work and they actively seek employers who provide such programs. In fact, studies show that employees are actively seeking volunteer opportunities that have a social impact within the corporate sector and that when companies provide philanthropic or volunteer opportunities to their employees they attract, develop and retain talent who are more likely to fast track on leadership paths.1 Our #CaimanCares employee volunteer program is where many of us find connectedness, fulfillment, and a greater sense of belonging.

A desire for more meaningful, socially-conscious volunteering has led to the rise of “voluntourism” and “volunteer vacations.” And in this age of human-centered transformation, organizations such as Realized Worth focused on employee volunteer empowerment, are seeing volunteering shift from a transactional exchange in the form of donations or time commitment to a desire for a greater sense of belonging and connectedness to the needs of communities. They specifically cite a shift from:

  • Programs to Movements.
  • Participation to Agency.
  • Helping to Belonging.

hammerdrilling1In consulting, our work very rarely has a direct impact on providing or improving the basic necessities of people’s lives, such as access to shelter, food, clean water, and education. My 20+ years of volunteering in some of the neediest areas of the world stem from a desire to have a direct, tangible impact and from a deep sense of connectedness to a global tribe. I was moved to tears recently as the wonderful crew I worked alongside completed and officially turned over the autism center and daycare/preschool to the staff – truly amazing work. I’m grateful to be a part of the Caiman tribe that supported me putting my non-consulting skills to work, in order to fulfill a passion that will leave a lasting mark for the educational opportunities of generations of children to come.  

1 William D. Eggers, Nate Wong and Kate Cooney, “The purpose-driving professional,” Deloitte University Press, September 8, 2015