Youth Rebuild Hurricane-hit U.S. Virgin Islands, One House at a Time

They did whatever needed doing. In the days after two Category 5 hurricanes slammed into the U.S. Virgin Islands—first Hurricane Irma, which tore off roofs and busted windows; then, Hurricane Maria, which brought storm surge and weeks of heavy rain—the local nonprofit, My Brother’s Workshop, jumped into action, no task too small.

My Brothers Workshop for NewsletterThey started serving meals: 37,000 in the two months that followed the storms. Then, they quickly responded to the news that some 18,000 homes across the islands had been damaged or destroyed, many belonging to vulnerable residents with little to no resources. The Workshop, whose mission is to empower at-risk youth by placing them in real-life work scenarios and teaching life and business skills, mobilized volunteers and students to rebuild their islands, one house at a time.

Four construction crews—each comprised of an adult, skilled supervisor and three to four student-trainees—spread out across the U.S. Virgin Islands, going from job to job. They patched roofs and floors, installed windows, and fixed walls and lighting. They even rebuilt the staircase of a home where an elderly couple had been forced to pull themselves out during one of the storms, using nothing but a rope and their might. “It’s an amazing experience for our trainees.

They get to both work alongside an adult on a job site and give back to the community,” said Jenny Hawkes, the organization’s executive director. “At the end of the job, they see for themselves how grateful people are!” In the eight months since the storms, the Workshop has repaired or rebuilt more than 200 homes, with another 109 on its waiting list. The group plans to complete all of them by February 2019, in part relying on grant dollars from hurricane relief funds at The Miami Foundation.

My Brothers Workshop 2 1The U.S. Caribbean Strong Relief Fund was created to support nonprofit organizations on the ground, like the Workshop, in their efforts, to help residents and communities across the region recover and rebuild. With more than $720,000 raised, it’s a cause that deeply resonates in South Florida. “Florida and the Caribbean are interconnected in so many ways, not only in geography, but in heritage and history,” said Marlon Hill, a Jamaica-born Miami attorney and  Miami Fellows alum. He helped set up the fund, create its advisory board and, one more than one occasion, went out to personally make pleads for donations. “The Caribbean has a deep connection to the soul of Florida, the soul of Miami. It was a no brainer for us to kick into action, and mobilize resources and support for the region.”

Now, in the midst of 2018’s hurricane season, everyone is focused on being storm-ready. On the islands, Jenny and the Workshop are working to complete as many repairs as possible, and loading up on plastic tarps and other supplies. “We’re trying to change the way we prepare,” she said. “The idea is, if another storm hits, we won’t need to wait for these items to be delivered.”

Marlon, in the meantime, is set to keep raising more awareness. “We have to understand that the islands will need continued support because these storms are just part of our reality. We have to get prepared, to establish endowments that will make us resilient and sustain us.” His biggest hope? “That there is a sense of urgency, that we begin mobilizing our networks early so that, when the call or the email arrives asking for help, folks are ready to move.”

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