At 11 AM on September 19, 2017 fear ran through the small village of El Jicarero in Morelos, Mexico. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake had just struck and the small community’s school was in session.

Parents, families, and friends were filled with uncertainty regarding the safety of the children attending classes at the local school.

Fortunately, the students had been evacuated and the community was able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But the school building had severe damage. Following the earthquake, the government deemed it unsafe for occupancy and shortly thereafter it was demolished.

Over five months later, the local children still did not have a permanent learning place.

Enter All Hands and Hearts (AHAH), a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to disaster relief and recovery. Their team of experienced and dedicated staff and volunteers recently began the process of reconstructing El Jicarero’s Narciso Mendoza Primary School and working to make it a disaster-resilient facility.

Volunteers, staff, and local masons and tradespeople are working full-time, six days a week constructing the school. They are a diverse group. Some have come from nearby or other parts of Mexico to help. Others from as far away as Australia or France. But they have all come with a shared vision and mutual understanding—to give their time and energy to help rebuild El Jicarero’s school so that the local students have a safe, quality place to learn and grow. The new classrooms will enable over 150 students to go back to school and provide a safe, quality place to learn for more than 400 students over the next 10 years.

Photo Credit: Pablo Miranzo

It is not just AHAH and workers helping; on Saturdays, community members work alongside volunteers. Diana Sanchez is a member of the El Jicarero community and mother of two children who were attending Narciso Mendoza Primary when the earthquake struck. Diana voiced strong support for the project.

“I enjoy helping to rebuild the school. It is one thing to rebuild a house or a home, but the school is for the community. It is for the children and for the future of the community,” Diana said.

She also was appreciative of AHAH volunteers and staff giving their time and energy to help El Jicarero rebuild: “The volunteers and staff are not from here, but they are making a sacrifice and giving their effort. It means a lot.”

AHAH began in 2005, and since then volunteers have worked to help local communities recover and rebuild after 83 disasters. And unlike some disaster related response nonprofits, AHAH does not just respond to the initial damage sustained from a natural disaster; they stay to help communities recover and rebuild. They have developed a response and recovery model that involves working directly with local community members as well as local, national, and international partners to respond, recover, and renew the areas in the most need after a disaster has hit. They do not simply drop in and make decisions for disaster victims—their model is inclusive and works to make sure local residents are key in decision-making processes and the projects they engage in make significant and sustainable impacts.

My Experience

I recently completed a three-week volunteering stint with AHAH assisting with the project in El Jicarero. I signed on not knowing very much about AHAH, El Jicarero, or disaster recovery. I walked away thoroughly impressed and eager to volunteer again in the near future. AHAH volunteers and staff were all positive and supportive throughout my stay and the local community welcomed us with incredible openness and kindness (e.g. residents offering fresh juice on exceedingly hot work days, advice for work related injuries, and opening their hearts and homes to the AHAH volunteers and staff). It was more than a disaster recovery volunteer experience—it was a cultural exchange and learning experience. I learned about construction, culture, and community.

If you feel an urge to reach out and lend a hand to families and communities in crisis after tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes please make a donation or sign up to volunteer with All Hands and Hearts. Every donation helps and there is no construction experience required to volunteer.

Photo Credit: Pablo Miranzo