When Blake Farris first volunteered with All Hands and Hearts in Nepal in 2016, he had no idea that four years later he would still be devoting his time to the organization.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Farris said. “I can remember being on the Facebook page – I’d just landed and made it to my hotel – and I had to figure out how to get there. I asked ‘Is anyone heading to the base?’ They rolled up in a little tuk-tuk and picked me up. We went to the bus station and that was it.”
A native of Conway, Ark., Farris has now completed four stints with All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer-driven organization that specializes in both short- and long-term relief for communities impacted by natural disasters.
In addition to Nepal, Farris has worked domestically with All Hands and Hearts in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas. Most recently, he spent two weeks of his 2019 winter break in Houston, Texas, continuing the recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.
“I think it’s better than a vacation,” Farris said. “It feels weird to connect manual labor with a vacation. It is work, but it’s a work of passion.”
The work of All Hands and Hearts is divided into two types: response and recovery. While most of Farris’ work has been focused on response, his time in Houston was focused on recovery efforts – rebuilding homes and creating high-quality interior repairs, including installing drywall, insulation, and flooring.
“I value the recovery work; it’s different,” Farris said. “The response work is my bread and butter. But the recovery work is more detailed and a little slower. You get to see people get super psyched about their homes. It’s fun to see a home come together.”
Farris discovered All Hands and Hearts as an undergraduate preparing to start a semester abroad in Shanghai, China. After finding himself with too much free time before the start of his classes, he came across an interesting volunteer opportunity in neighboring Nepal.
“Because of the Chinese New Year, we didn’t start until March,” Farris said. “I had this huge block of time where I was done with the fall semester and was free until March and was looking for something to do. I somehow found All Hands and Hearts. I’ve been volunteering with them ever since.”
Starting in January 2016, Farris spent six weeks as a team leader on the Nepal site’s Rubble Team. Just nine months prior, Kathamandu was struck by its worst earthquake in almost a century. More than 9,000 people were killed and another 23,000 were injured. The damage to homes and schools in the area was immeasurable.
It was the Rubble Team’s job to clear debris from the disaster site. All Hands and Hearts prioritizes their sites’ most vulnerable areas, which in this case included a small village of about 4,000 people in the Melamchi Valley.
The village location made it nearly impossible to use machinery. Farris and the Rubble Team manually cleared the area and leveled the ground by hand, using shovels, picks, and wheel barrows. This set the stage for recovery work to begin.
“I mostly just learned how to lead a team at that point,” Farris said, who as team leader was responsible for individual training. “I learned the responsibilities of it and how to manage people on a potentially dangerous working site.”
Farris took on similar work in his second round with All Hands and Hearts in 2017. This time, again as a team leader, he assisted with debris clearance in Gatlinburg, Tenn., following wildfires that decimated the state’s Great Smoky Mountain region. With damage spread across more than 15,000 acres, it was one of the largest natural disasters in the state’s history.
“Debris clearance companies were coming in from out of state and gouging prices – it could cost you $10,000 to $15,000 just to clear your pad for your home,” Farris said. “We would go in, spend a few days, and do it for them.”
In June 2019, just two months before he enrolled at the Clinton School, he assisted with the All Hands and Hearts response effort in North Carolina. This time, the organization’s efforts followed Hurricane Florence, a tropical cyclone that dropped more rainfall on the state than any other storm in history while inflicting more than $24B in damages. Doing a blend of recovery and response work, he removed drywall, trim, and insulation to conduct mold sanitation.
Among the many things Farris said he loves about volunteering with All Hands and Hearts is the work itself. He loves working with his hands. The experiences even helped him complete his undergraduate thesis – a business plan for a system to prevent wildfires. He would love to add another volunteer experience with All Hands and Hearts after graduating from the Clinton School in the spring of 2021.
“The environment of the organization is great,” Farris said. “It’s the most inclusive I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a motley crew of people with all different backgrounds, some the coolest people you will ever meet.”
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