Mike is now assigned with around 60 other volunteers helping build “transitional homes” in Barangay San Isidro, Tacloban.
The volunteers consist of people from all over the world. The UK, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Their ages range from as young as 18 and 19 to 50s and 60s. Usually they are students who are on break, professionals taking a break and retired professionals.
Mike recounted that on his first day in Tacloban, he partnered with another volunteer from London and they joined 3 residents in digging a septic tank for the temporary homes.
“The hole was 120 centimeters deep and it took us all day to dig the hole. We had two other teams working on other septic tanks and another team building and putting up the structures that support the floors and roofs of the homes”.
During his first tour of duty in Ormoc just last January , Mike led a team of volunteers in clearing rubble. “My most memorable experience was when we cleared an area to be used as a vegetable and fruit garden for the neighborhood. But to do that, we had to first tear down a concrete wall approximately 20 meters long. We had 3 teams working on this for 2 days.”
Mike’s volunteerism never ceases to amaze me. Why would a young professional like Mike, travel half-way across the globe, pay for his own expenses, including medical insurance, carry his back pack and own sleeping pad, to join like-minded volunteers in digging septic tanks and clearing rubble, constructing drainage canals, planting trees, rebuilding schoolhouses, and building transitional shelters?
In exchange for his sweat contribution, Mike gets to live communally, provided only with basic accommodations and simple, local meals on work days.
“When I saw the images of the death and devastation ……. I felt the urgent need to help. I could easily donate to relief organizations but I decided that I wanted to do more,” Mike explained.
Mike browsed the internet and came across All Hands Volunteers. All Hands Volunteers is a volunteer-driven US-based organization that provides hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters.
All Hands hopes to “fill in gaps left by government and non-government agencies in clean-up, community recovery and reconstruction projects.” The normal tours of duty are physically demanding. Volunteers are forewarned that “We typically work six days a week. The work can get pretty dirty. We start early and finish in the late afternoon.”
It was founded in 2005 following the Southeast Asian Tsunami. AHV has since coordinated more than 17,000 volunteers from over 42 countries. AHV has participated in 36 disaster operations worldwide.
AHV is not new to disaster response operations in the Philippines. AHV was present through Project Cagayan de Oro in the aftermath of Typhoon Sendong, Project Bohol and now Project Leyte.
Mike recalled his first tour in Ormoc: “The best part was during our daily breaks. The kids from the school next to the site would come out and hang out with us. Some even helped with the removal of the rubble.
“Nothing beats the sight of those young children who are smiling once again.
“ We also got to talk to residents, who in time slowly opened up to us. They relieved their experiences and fears. But always you can sense their hopes and boundless optimism.”
An alumnus of Project Leyte, Ariel Neidermeir of Berkely, California, sums up what it feels to spend 90 days in Leyte:
“It was during those long, hot days that I learned the true meaning of hard work and gratitude. I remember working on a site where the family cooked us a hot meal for lunch the first day we were there.
“We happily ate it but politely told them we couldn’t accept lunches from them again for fear they were depleting their own scarce resources cooking for us. The next day, the husband of the family, Edgar, served us cold cokes and pastries during our break time. He ignored our polite declines, placed the snacks in front of us and said with finality: “Yes. It is the least we can do.”
“Gratitude is what I am left with…. far away from the ravaged beauty of Tacloban, thinking of the Filipino people rising above the destruction and moving forward.”
To Mike Arceo, Ariel Neidermeir and other All Hands Volunteers, as well as the other relief organizations still engaged in Leyte, Maraming Salamat sa Inyong Lahat!