After earning her master’s in civil engineering at the University of Waterloo, Emily Vance planned to spend a year travelling before settling down and entering the work force.
A year and seven months later, and the former Vernon resident has still not returned home but has instead found herself in Tacloban, Philippines working with All Hands Volunteers doing disaster response following Typhoon Haiyan last year.
“I planned to travel for a year then come back to real life and get an engineering job,” said Vance, who has been to Central America, Australia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia, and has been in the Philippines since July, volunteering since Aug. 11. “I always wanted to spend some time volunteering, but I didn’t find the right organization or opportunity until now. While traveling I saw all these developing countries where the people have so much less than we do, and volunteering was my chance to help them out and give back.
“I’ve never done something like this before. When I got here, I didn’t know that I could sweat so much. Doing manual labour in the Filipino heat and humidity is intense. It takes a couple weeks before your body gets used to the work and the schedule. Every day I was exhausted and in bed early.”
But after four months, Vance said she has acclimatized to the tropical climate and is up at 5 a.m. most mornings to cycle or run before work.
“You get used to it. Plus, the other volunteers here have been so welcoming and friendly and I’ve become really close with them. It’s like having a family away from home.
“And my real family and friends have been very supportive, though I think they often wonder if I’ll ever come back to Canada.”
All Hands Volunteers is an organization that responds to natural disasters all over the world. The U.S.-based non-profit organization provides hands-on assistance, with maximum impact and minimum bureaucracy. Its response to Haiyan is the organization’s fifth project in the Philippines in the past seven years.
Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines Nov. 8, 2013, causing 6,300 people to lose their lives, with more than 1,600 people still missing; 29,000 people were injured, while property damage amounted to more than $2 billion, with 1.1 million homes heavily damaged or completely destroyed.
All Hands started Project Leyte Dec. 2 and since then, more than 500 volunteers have safely deconstructed 342 damaged buildings and built communities of 146 transitional shelters for displaced families as well as taking part in many other projects, including building permanent homes and schools.
In Tacloban, 31,000 people continue to live in unsecure housing. Although temporary shelters are being constructed, All Hands sees relocation as a last resort and seeks to cause the minimum amount of disruption to the lives of people.
“All Hands is a small organization, so we generally partner with bigger NGOs who provide funding while we provide the manpower to implement projects,” said Vance.
The new project, which All Hands is doing independently, is to build permanent shelters for families where their original homes were so they can stay within their community and keep their livelihoods. Two of these houses have been completed and volunteers are fundraising to build more.”
Vance has spoken with a number of people about the day the typhoon struck.
“They tell stories of where they were and how they survived. For the Philippines, typhoons are a regular occurrence so people weren’t too concerned. However, they never expected the storm surge. It was a 25-foot wave that basically destroyed everything near the waterfront. Afterwards, there was rubble, death and destruction everywhere. Another man lost all seven of his children. They were all swept away from him by the storm surge. He searched for and found each one of them afterwards and buried them together. But the Filipino people are incredibly resilient and they are building back their lives, with our help. A year later, Tacloban is a city again and new shops open up all the time.”
Vance said she has been overwhelmed by the warmth of the people she has met. Wherever she and other volunteers go, they are greeted with hellos, smiles and high-fives.
“When we chat with them, they always thank us for giving our time to be here. When one project finished up, the ladies cried as they thanked us for giving them homes to live in again. It’s really touching. The children here are the best part. They always want to hold your hand. They’re so cheerful and friendly and they’re really interested in us.”
Vance said All Hands will be in Tacloban until the end of January, with the possibility of the project extending past that date. She plans on staying until Jan. 31 and then making a decision as to whether she will continue.
“I really like this work and hope that I can continue with it in one way or another. I think it would be beneficial to go back to Canada and work as an engineer for a while to build up my experience. Then I can provide more knowledge and skills to projects like this. However, there is a potential project starting up in India in a couple months, so I might just head over there if it goes through.
“This volunteer experience has really made me question exactly what I want to do with the rest of my career.
“This has been rewarding for me because I get to see families who have been living in tents or shacks for almost a year move into real homes. And I helped build those homes. I really feel like I’ve accomplished something and contributed to something worthwhile. We are literally changing lives here.”
Vance recently took part in a fundraising bike ride with five other volunteers from around the world, with a goal of raising $27,500 to build eight new homes for families who are currently living in tents or makeshift shacks. Rise Up Ride On was a 300 km ride over seven days, taking place in the height of typhoon season and passing through towns along the path of destruction.
For more information or to make a donation towards the $10,000 fundraising goal, go to www.justgiving.com/Emily-Vance-Cycle.