Volunteering in the Keys
The volunteers were quick to start work in the home, which needed a complete gutting. KRISTEN LIVENGOOD/Keys Weekly

“The homeowners couldn’t be more appreciative. One homeowner even made a birthday cake for one of the helpers who celebrated their birthday while here volunteering.” — Ron Burd

All Hands and Hearts, a national volunteer organization, just pulled up stakes after three solid months of work in the Keys following Hurricane Irma. Locals will know them by their distinctive purple T-shirts.

“At different times, we’ve had about 150 volunteers working in the islands,” said Neil Tweardy, logistics coordinator for All Hands and Hearts. “On any given week, we had about 30 to 40 people working. We’ve logged 12,000 hours.”

The volunteers, tools, cots and meals were spread out at different churches in Marathon and Big Pine Key, including Lord of the Seas Lutheran Church, St. Francis in the Keys and St. Columba Episcopal Church.

“The stories of the Keys residents have had a huge impact on all our volunteers,” Tweardy said. “More than just cleaning out drywall, we were striving to let the people of the Keys know that somebody cares about them and is here to assist them. By the way, what we witnessed in the Keys — people helping people, and the community coming together — was just amazing.”

Ron Burd, a board member of the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys, said,

“These folks have been doing nothing but working from morning to evening. They are not just helping to restore homes, but helping to restore hope. There is great hope for the next generation seeing all these young people here helping.”

The scope of the work ranged from sawing up felled trees to bringing down rotten drywall.

Many of the volunteers signed up through the All Hands and Hearts website. The organization is actually a blend of two charities started immediately after the Thailand tsunami of 2004. David Campbell, former CEO of BBN Technologies, started All Hands Volunteers in 2005. Petra Nemcova, who herself was swept away by the tsunami and survived by clinging to a tree for eight hours, established Happy Hearts Fund in 2005. The two merged to become All Hands and Hearts in 2017.

“Among the groups were some high school kids from North Carolina, some students from an alternative school in Maine, and a corporate group from the hospitality industry,” Tweardy said.

On Dec. 15, one of the last days the organization was working in the Keys, the volunteers were working at a house on Pine Way. It suffered a 10-foot storm surge, a failed roof, and knocked down the railing of the steps leading to the house.

Tweardy said his disaster experience is mostly from catastrophes in the Midwest, mostly floods.

“Seeing massive 27-foot sailboats in the middle of someone’s yard, that’s pretty dramatic,” Tweardy said.

All Hands and Hearts’ work in the Keys was underwritten by a corporate grant. For more details, visit allhandsandhearts.org.

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