Panama City News Herald: Nonprofit All Hands and Hearts to helping rebuild Bay Homes
PANAMA CITY ― For more than nine months, many hands and caring hearts have helped put the community back on its feet.
Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, a nonprofit organization, have been rebuilding homes for homeowners in the Panhandle since November, about a month after the Category 5 Hurricane Michael hit.
“Our motto is to arrive early & stay late,” said Devyn Lopez, Volunteer Relations Coordinator at All Hands and Hearts. “We have a lot of international volunteers, which is so exciting.”
Volunteers from across the world have been paying their own flights to take months off work and school to aid the Panhandle in its recovery. All Hands and Hearts has been working in both Bay and Calhoun County.
The program has 364 volunteers and has completed 226 jobs, touching more than 700 lives in the Panhandle.
“I love this job because I get to meet people from all around the world who really have a passion to help others,” Lopez said. “We have volunteers from London, France, Germany, Canada, and Spain.”
Not only is passion for the job greatly expressed by volunteers, but projects are carried out with an abundance of cooperation amongst them.
“They want you to be here and you don’t have to jump through hoops or anything,” said Mateo Flores, a volunteer from London. “I really like that, because something my father always used to say to me is you start something you finish it. A lot of the other organizations start something but they don’t finish it. Not All Hands and Hearts.”
For both volunteers and homeowners, the experience has been one of personal growth, as many homeowners are still living in their homes while they are being rebuilt.
“When you go somewhere different you grow as a person because you’re not at home,” said Johanna Sailema, a volunteer from New Jersey. “You’re appreciative of what you have back home after coming here and seeing people in need. My home owner cries every day, and I get to see how happy she gets every day her house gets better. We’re giving her hope by bringing her house back to life.”
Martha Moreno, a volunteer from Spain, said she had similar experiences.
“When we go to houses the homeowners are really thankful,” she said. “I have to tell them to stop saying thank you so much. It’s really nice to see that they’re happy that you’re there. That’s something that really motivates me.”
Most nonprofit programs assign different projects for volunteers to do daily, but volunteers with All Hands and Hearts work with the same homeowners for at least a week or more.
“They know that if you get used to it you can work harder, because it builds a better connection with the homeowner,” Flores said. “It not only works better, but it feels better in the end. If feels more meaningful.”
Military personnel from Tyndall Air Force Base also assist volunteers on Saturdays with projects.
“Having their help just for a day is always beneficial,” Flores said. “The homeowners love seeing the extra hands. Having those guys help us on the last day is great, because they just get the job done.”
Having established relationships with their homeowners, the hardest thing for volunteers is saying goodbye.
“It’s such a family, and such a close thing. It’s almost like I’ve known them for a long time,” Sailema said. “It’s really hard saying goodbye.”
“What I really like about this organization is it’s for real, Moreno said. “You know you’re coming here to help and do something good for the community.”
The program has transitioned to recovery phase this past month, and its list of houses is currently full.
All Hands and Hearts will continue mucking, gutting, removing debris, and mold sanitation to complete response work.
Volunteers will be working and assisting homeowners at least until the end of this year.
“It takes a lot of heart and a lot of hands,” Sailema said. “We have a lot of heart here.”