Ten-year HeadCount veteran Laura Scalet got involved in relief work after Hurricane Sandy. Late last year, she gave up everything to head to the Philippines in the wake of the horrific typhoon there. Here is her story.
“Holy Shit,” I thought to myself as I smoked one last joint outside the International Terminal at SFO. “I’m really flying by myself to a disaster zone.” It had been almost a month since Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda tore through the Philippines, initially reported as the strongest storm in recorded history, and the adrenaline was surging—to say the least. It had been a whirlwind of emotions getting to that point in time at the airport, and I still had no clue where I was going to end up once I landed in Manila. Luckily my mentor and friend Alison Thompson has been there for me through this whole process. Having visited the country a week after the storm, she had an idea of where the best locations might be. With minutes before my plane departed, I called her and asked for direction. After speaking about the options of places she had scouted, she said, "Why don’t you go to Bantayan Island?" I said "OK."
A few days after observing Phish drop Twist>Under Pressure in Atlantic City on Halloween weekend, I was in Brooklyn visiting friends when the giant white spiral of a cyclone flashed across the television screen. Immediately I felt a calling in my heart so strong I had no option other than to honor it. I knew I had to get to the Philippines to help. As a Healing Arts Practitioner, I knew I had the ability to hold space for the recovery efforts, and this is just what I intended to do. Luckily, a crowdfunding campaign helped me to prepare myself for this journey into the unknown, and over half of the funds contributed were from the HeadCount family. Huge shout-out and love to all who gave. Others’ words of encouragement motivated me to keep pushing forward, even when in the most doubtful of spirits.
I had done this once before. After Hurricane Sandy, I walked into the largest relief center in NYC and said, "I am here to volunteer," after which I was immediately handed a radio and told, “You are command post.” How much different could it be?
Well, flying halfway across the world with $500 dollars to your name does take faith—and surrender. Upon deporting the ferry on Bantayan Island, I was asked if I needed a ride. My reply was, “Yes, and I also need a place to stay.” Andy, the trike driver, nodded his head in understanding and drove me to Annie’s Rest Hauz. Seven months later, these people had become my local family, as if we had been waiting for each other to show up in the others' lives.
After a few days of scouting and performing an initial clearing of the island of residual energy left over from the traumatic impact of the storm, it became apparent that a group of volunteers had also showed up on the same day as I. Americans who had been living in China (and facilitating tours into North Korea) had arrived on the same island with the same calling in their hearts. Kooky. They were calling themselves Young Pioneer Disaster Response. "Eclectic," I thought to myself. Originally setting out to be in the Philippines for only 3 weeks, I new that the work here was just beginning. Based on my interactions with other volunteers, I chose to stay.
Time went on, and it was a simple twist of fate that lead me into the arms of Young Pioneer Disaster Response. Within 90 days of being on the island, they had officially formed an NGO and co-created partnerships with some of the brightest international humanitarian organizations. Their story was inspiring, and it became clear to me that these were the angels with whom I was destined to meet.
From distributing relief goods to coordinating medical missions to providing labor on the construction of over 900 shelters, YPDR is the definition of a paradigm shift in humanitarian aid. The shelters employed the newest housing design, by the way, which puts all other shelter projects to shame with its storm-resistant construction, aesthetic beauty and the ability to be unbolted from its foundation in case of future relocation scenarios. I like to think of YPDR as the HeadCount of disaster relief as each individual is prized for their own unique talents and challenged to bring out the best in themselves, even in the most trying of circumstances.
A few months back, it was a moment of clarity that lead to the building of a boat.
“What are you going to do with a boat?”
“Well, I don’t know yet, but we are building a boat.”
Through inspiration and conversations, the boat project lead to the mapping of the local marine sanctuary, which in turn lead to the creation of fish domes—protective habitats that replace lost coral. We had traveled to the Philippines in part to help heal the wounds of humanity (and in turn heal a part of ourselves). The fact that the Philippines is at a biodiversity tipping point may or may not have been in our conscious minds. But, as the dust settled and long-term projects came into view, we had to look no further than our front door. The waters surrounding the island are in desperate need of some good old-fashioned TLC. Years of improper fishing techniques combined with the turbulence of Typhoon Haiayan/Yolanda have left estimates of anywhere between 3-20% of live hard coral remaining. WHOA.
After we had begun work on the fish domes, the U.N. released a statement expressing that Environmental Habitat Restoration is imperative for livelihood recovery. Once again we all knew we were in alignment with the greater good of the earth. Moving forward with the fish domes, which are constructed out of limestone and bamboo, has been a breath of fresh air for many of us. By providing the fish a place to replenish themselves in the absence of their natural coral habitat, we are facilitating the long-term resilience needed to get fisherfolk back on their feet, while employing local islanders. Other NGOs are providing boats. I’m actually not sure they read the memo on providing alternate livelihoods for fisherfolk while the seas are healing themselves. I will admit sometimes that it’s frustrating to be so aware of the practices and habits of larger, more-established agencies. This being said, the free thinking and seemingly infinite possibilities of the YPDR approach are unprecedented in the disaster response arena. Direct action is often lost in paperwork and red tape. At YPDR, well, we just do it.
Our most recent sustainable livelihood initiative encourages the collective creativity of 23 ladies who founded a women’s co-operative based in the ancient art of shell craft. The women of Kataw Handicrafts (Kataw being the Visayan word for mermaid) have designed and created thousands upon thousands of unique pieces of jewelry that are currently for sale online as well as in five countries across the globe. It is our hope that Kataw will continue to transform and grow into a self-sustaining enterprise completely run by the women of Bantayan themselves.
Less than a year of volunteer work, and we at YPDR have made more of an impact than any other NGO on the island. A group of strangers before the storm, all drawn to the same island for one reason or another, have become family in our quest to facilitate the blossoming of the beauty that always has the potential to emerge in the wake of disaster. To find out more please visit ypdr.org or shoot me an email at [email protected].