Like many of the people I now support when I volunteer, I come from humble beginnings. From early childhood to my late teens, my limited wardrobe consisted of either donations from charities or clothes that my mother, who had left her home country of Vietnam during the war, would sew for me. I learned very early on to find joy in the simple things in life and have always believed, maybe naively so, that people are intrinsically good.
It is those humble beginnings that paved the way for my passion for volunteering. People have helped me and my family when I was younger, and I am now in a position to help others. Life comes full circle. Like many, I’ve experienced hardship and painful episodes of loss over the years, but volunteering has always put things in perspective for me. Such is the beauty of giving: the realization that in the end, the intangibles one receives go way beyond what one gives.
I never had the flexibility to take a year off to travel or to join projects for months on end like some of my fellow volunteers. I had to start working as soon as I graduated from school, but I held on to the idea of giving back, and when there is a will there is a way! I recently celebrated 20 years of volunteering activities around the world, from orphanage visits to tutoring of underprivileged children, disaster relief, or work in slum areas and refugee camps.
While helping out in Japan after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 2011, a friend told me about an organization called All Hands Volunteers. I bookmarked the website. When they launched their response to Superstorm Sandy I expressed my interest and soon received an e-mail welcoming me to Project Long Island. I first joined the project in March 2013 and volunteered with All Hands in New York on a total of nine different occasions that year alone.
The camaraderie with fellow volunteers coming from all walks of life but with a similar desire to help was instant and infectious. Logistics were made easy, allowing me to focus my limited time off work on helping rather than untangling administrative details. I had no technical knowledge but the projects were structured and I was provided with the guidance, safety measures, procedures and tools I needed. I witnessed first-hand the long-term impact of All Hands Volunteers’ work as several disaster response projects I joined turned into rebuild activities – in New York specifically, I was given a chance to further the response work I had started in early 2013 and help rebuild homes affected by Superstorm Sandy in Long Island in late 2013, Staten Island in 2014 and Brooklyn in 2015.
It has been four years since my first AHV project. All Hands Volunteers has made it possible for me to volunteer around the world on 18 different projects to address the needs of areas struck by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, typhoons and earthquakes. I’ve learned a lot, made lifetime friends, and still receive occasional updates from survivors I’ve assisted.
I do not have the energy of a 20-year-old; I do not have much free time beyond weekends and vacation days; I do not have the technical know-how of a construction worker or any specialized skills outside of my office desk work; I do not have big muscles; but I have heart and a strong desire to help, and All Hands Volunteers determined that it was good enough. I am thankful.