Volunteer Experiences of a Humanitarian

In this podcast, David Scott, Senior Vice President of TransRe’s North American Professional Liability Facultative team in New York, discusses his volunteer efforts with All Hands and Hearts charitable organization and explores:

  • What to expect while volunteering abroad
  • How he became involved with All Hands and Hearts
  • Differences and similarities between his three volunteer experiences

Can’t listen now? Read the edited transcript

Today’s interview is a little different because we will be discussing David’s volunteering efforts. He has participated in a humanitarian response to three natural disasters (Nepal, Louisiana and Puerto Rico) with All Hands and Hearts charitable organization. David, welcome to the show.

People who live in areas where disaster strikes usually don’t buy a lot of insurance. If you don’t have insurance where do you get access to resources (besides families and charities)?

As a reinsurer, we sell to insurance companies and being in commercial lines of insurance, we sell to companies. Natural disasters affect companies and businesses, but the greatest impact is often to individuals, families and homeowners. It’s easy to be further removed from the actual experience. Natural catastrophes are a local thing and we read and hear about them in the media, but they fall out of the news cycle quickly outside of the area that was impacted. NYC had its own experience with Sandy and Sandy was a very personal experience. I had three immediate family members impacted by that storm and as a family we helped each other. About a month or two later, I went to a Professional Liability conference and Sandy wasn’t even a topic of conversation. Unless you’re bailing water or trying to get rid of mold, you don’t really have that experience. Earthquake, tornado, they’re very local and personalized even to people who are in the insurance business.

How do you get back on your feet if you live in a part of the world where there’s no insurance?

The NGO that I volunteer with All Hands and Hearts tend to go to catastrophic stricken areas but also areas most in need. A lot of those places have never heard of insurance or reinsurance. The first trip I took was a bit remote and it was in the mountains of Nepal. People live in stone huts there and these huts have literally crumbled around them and sometimes on top of family members. That’s one of the more extreme examples of the dissociation between what I do for a living and the folks impacted. It becomes a communal effort and you rely upon the government. ‘What happened when you arrived in Kathmandu?’ I could talk about my trip and the van ride out to the worksite forever. A van pulls up and I think to myself this will be interesting. It was an almost out of body experience because it’s a story that’s impacted my life in so many ways.

When did you know you wanted to volunteer in Nepal?

I was inspired by a colleague and it was a spur of the moment idea. We were raising money as a company for the earthquake relief in Nepal and someone came into my office and thanked me for being involved. I mentioned that wasn’t all that I was doing, and that I was going to go there. I had no idea how to get there but I was inspired by his genuine gratitude. During our discussion I realized he is Nepalese and that was a seminal moment for me to go and volunteer.

Was there a plan in action for people to go or did you need to figure it out?

I googled Nepal earthquake relief and a bunch of nonprofits came up. I found All Hands and Hearts and asked a few people about the organization. The model for All Hands and Hearts is that you pay for your own flight and they will provide food and shelter. You need to be willing to work and live in communal environments. I was completely comfortable the entire time.

It was a long flight to get there as I had a connection through Dubai into Kathmandu which is a full day of traveling for a day of traveling. I woke up the next morning, ate breakfast and it was time to go to the site (a bus ride of four hours plus). I couldn’t catch the luxury bus which is similar to a Greyhound so I got into a van that had 25 people which should’ve only fit 12. At that moment, it occurred to me that I had put my life in the hands of a stranger, in a foreign country halfway around the world and I didn’t speak the local language.

Did the van only carry volunteers or was it also for locals who needed to travel to the mountains?

No, there were locals. There’s a lot of coordination that happens pre-trip and you are able to coordinate with other volunteers. The NGO is good about scheduling transportation. I missed that bus and I still wanted to go, so I found a taxi driver (who thankfully spoke English) and he drove me to the bus stop. It was a corrugated rusty two-person bus stop and when the van approached, I saw a sticker of Bob Marley on the side of the van and I knew I was going to be okay. ‘What year was this?’ This was in 2016 and I was anxious to go and help. Once inspired I wanted to help as quickly as I could, but it took a while to get approved by the NGO. In hindsight, I understand why, there’s not much I could have done initially after the earthquake. Overtime I kept inquiring with the NGO and almost a year after the earthquake was when I made the month-long trip. I did a lot of work of clearing homeowner sites from rubble. You have to be ready to live with 75 of your newest friends that you’ve never met before. This isn’t for everyone, but it’s a powerful environment knowing that everybody is there to help. The good news is this NGO is still in Nepal building schools.

Have other earthquakes happened in the past?

They’ve had a history of earthquakes. ‘Did people appear shocked? I know if you live in a part of the world where these things happen people sometimes aren’t as shocked.’ Nepal is interesting to me because the people are really incredibly stoic, and I think that’s part of the culture. If a hurricane or earthquake happens in the US and power goes out, people start coming out with pitchforks. People in Puerto Rico went without electricity for over a year. All of these experiences allow me to stay grounded. To be self-aware of what I have and the means by which I’m able to live and provide for my family. You go to these places (Nepal we’ve talked extensively about) and not a lot of people understand the concept of insurance or reinsurance, especially in the rural parts of the country.

My second volunteer experience was in Louisiana, which suffered flooding. Insurance is common in the US but there’s limitations on insurance and flood insurance. There’s a lot of nuances to what happens in a natural catastrophe that it’s easy for us to think ‘they bought an insurance policy, so they’re covered.’ Most people don’t realize that when you have a natural catastrophe, people need people to get the water out of the house. You need people to rip out sheet rock and replace doors and windows. Unfortunately, at the opposite end of volunteerism there are people who are advantageous. Not all contractors are honest, and they sometimes squeeze people for money. In normal circumstances, their insurance money would cover a complete remodel of their house, but maybe now they can only do their kitchen because a contractor has inflated the prices because of the lack of contractors to do the work.

There is a contrast between the effort in Nepal and in Louisiana because of the vastly different places. What is similar between those experiences and the people?

I guess with all three experiences including Puerto Rico is the resilience. You asked earlier what happens when there’s no insurance or there is nobody to help, the communities help one another. In Louisiana not as much, but there was a neighbor helping this one woman whose house I was working on. In Puerto Rico, a much bigger scale because the communities gather around baseball games and barbecues. While I was there, they had a softball tournament that the volunteer group participated in. The community was also raising money because someone needed a kidney transplant. They take care of each other. The NGO does a great job of not just bringing people from all over the world to do manual labor but to ingrain themselves into a neighborhood and do work that’s sustainable. They’re not dropping food off and leaving. They are trying to rebuild homes, make them earthquake resilient (not earthquake proof) and build metal frames and put rocks on the outside so when an earthquake happens the rocks fall out as opposed to falling in. In Nepal, it’s an extensive number of schools that have been built which is important to the community. In Puerto Rico, they’re helping to refurbish baseball fields, which is a large part of their culture and community. All Hands and Hearts wants to do work that has a long impact.

If you’re in Nepal, you know how to build another house if your house fell because it’s a simple structure. The community comes together to rebuild the homes. The problem is that it can happen again and maybe there’s other collateral damage that occurs that isn’t visible to people without any experience in construction.

It does sound simpler and I know that, you know, it’s a more difficult process. Your house is built from rocks and it falls apart. Your children might be working in a different country that has a better economy to make money to send home. They may not be around to help you rebuild your house, which was the case at one of the sites that I worked in Nepal. Governmental limitations are also an issue. In Nepal if there was any sign that you had rebuilt your home then you would not receive government reimbursement. A lot of the work that was done while we were there was clearing the worksites, piling the rocks, moving them out of the rubble into a spot where you could pile them.

What would have happened if All Hands and Hearts didn’t go there?

I think people find a way and you don’t know who you inspire. Having strangers come from all over the world to help, you don’t know how that may inspire someone who’s the recipient of that help. I know how the experiences have affected me and how it’s changed the way I think. Children are still going to go to school there, but maybe class is held in a structure that isn’t safe and another earthquake happens, and more people die. It could go in a lot of different ways. You’re rebuilding these homes and other structures the correct way with steel inner shell and rocks on the outside. There’s a sense of bringing knowledge and resources because the people aren’t engineers and probably have never met one in their life. They don’t have access to people with training to show them the correct way to do something with the resources that are available.

It all starts with an idea or an action. All Hands was founded by David Campbell and Happy Hearts Fund was founded by Petra Nemcova. They were both impacted by the tsunami that occurred in Thailand in 2004. Petra was personally impacted (she was there) and David was in the US. They were two separate organizations that joined forces in the fall of 2017. They didn’t have to do anything to help but they decided to do something. The organization as it exists today is making a tremendous impact and it’s attracting people from all around the world.

Does the NGO provide training onsite?

When you first arrive at the site you get tutored by people who are engineers and they will volunteer their time to help develop the proper home model. The NGO also has a professional staff of qualified people. 96% I believe is the number of proceeds of donations that impact people affected by the storms. All Hands and Hearts has a four-star rating from Charity Navigator so nearly all the money goes towards people who are impacted, which is impressive. Many of the volunteers could be doing something else and be compensated better but they choose to do this as their main profession (or a second profession). The volunteers will pay to get themselves there, they get fed twice a day and they have a roof over their heads or a tent depending on the circumstances.

Do people get injured or sick?

Yes, absolutely and the NGO has insurance. That’s all part of what you sign up for when you go. ‘Did you get hurt? Knees, hips, shoulders?’ I confess that I came back from Nepal and I had hernia surgery. I think it was from lifting all the boulders and pretending I was half my age. I was trying to keep up with a couple of 20-year-old wrestlers from Kentucky. It’s just such a great experience and the stories could go on forever. The first day I’m in Nepal, our work site was literally 500 feet up, 400 feet climb after we got dropped off. Not all the sites were like this, but we had to carry water up. It’s hot outside, and the water is heavy, but the volunteers need to stay hydrated. I get there and they ask who wants to carry the water up. The water was in giant 10-gallon jugs. The 20-year-old wrestler picks one up and starts running up the hill. I picked up the other one and I made it maybe a third of the way up before I had to pass it over to somebody else. People cut themselves, hurt themselves and get sick.

‘No wonder the NGO has to be picky because they’re looking at a whole bunch of older people, I mean, you’re not that old David, but they’re wondering if this guy is a lot more trouble than it’s worth.’

More of the workforce tends to be in the 18 to 25-year-old age group. Actually, in Puerto Rico, there were a number of US retirees and I think that may have had to do with the proximity to the US. It’s an interesting dichotomy there to see multi-generations of people that want to help.

Is the work on average, less physically demanding in a first world country than say in Nepal?

While in Nepal I became friends with a retired Navy Special Ops who did three tours in Iraq as an explosive expert. He was covered in tattoos (that’s not a bad thing but I don’t have any) and he was somebody I probably never would have spent time with. He completely impacted my life. We would have coffee in the morning together and one day he looks at me and says, ‘you know, this is backbreaking work’ and I say, ‘wait a minute you think so too!’

The work can vary in terms of its strenuousness. In Puerto Rico, we were repairing roofs because they were leaking and causing mold in homes. At the latest count, All Hands and Hearts has repaired 400 roofs in Yabucoa. They seal the roofs, scrape them down, fill holes, recement and paint. Once that is done you remove the mold in the house. Hurricane Maria happened two years ago, and people are still living in homes that have mold. It would be easy for me to sit in my chair and wonder if it’s going to make a difference if I go to Puerto Rico for only two weeks. If David and Petra thought that way, none of this would have happened. I equate it to throwing a pebble into a lake and watching the ripples. I don’t know if either of them could have imagined what their efforts would have led to today. It only takes one volunteer to go home and tell their neighbors about their experience and then other people go and do it. It’s easy to say I’ll write a check and that’s important too.

At TransRe, Paul McKeon threw that pebble and his department essentially went out and started doing volunteer work. Paul’s mentality was that everyone can write checks but let’s go out and personally volunteer. That pebble developed into a broader formal program that now includes two paid days off to volunteer. There were so many people already volunteering before the program was created and volunteering in different ways for different organizations. It’s cool to see the ripples come away from that.

Does a subtle problem ever emerge while volunteering that’s harder to get at or is there a feeling that you experience?

I think there’s lasting impact beyond the physical work that’s done. You impact people’s lives when you show up with no agenda. It’s the impact of the kindness of strangers. When you don’t have insurance or a government that’s organized, the support is super impactful to have these people come and help you. In the end, it’s so much more than the physical work. Just knowing somebody else cares gives people hope and that’s a good way to describe it.

Was there a deeper communal response in Nepal then you found in Louisiana? You can add Puerto Rico into the mix for comparison.

I always defer to Puerto Rico for questions related to that because I think there’s a lot that happens culturally there. They have a strong communal environment and everyone helps each other. They are resilient and their outlook is bright even with all that has transpired around them, they have hope. The weekend barbecues or baseball games aren’t canceled. They don’t cease doing daily activities. Puerto Rico is specifically interesting because the international community views it as a US problem. There is not as much money being donated or support. As we know, without full statehood, the US doesn’t support Puerto Rico the same way that it would with the other parts of the country.

Tell me a little bit more about your volunteer experience in Louisiana.

In the US, where insurance is much more prevalent, there’s plenty of places that are without it. Those are the type of places that All Hands and Hearts goes to. I took one of my daughters with me on the Louisiana trip because I wanted her to see that there are places in this country that need a lot of help. There are great divides in terms of the socioeconomic strata. I know the trip had an impact on her because when she gave her leaving speech, I saw the same wave of emotion hit her that I felt in Nepal. The organization has you do icebreakers when you first arrive (what’s your name, where are you from) to get to know the other volunteers. When you leave you say goodbye and tell them what the experience meant to you and it’s extraordinarily impactful. Especially given the kind of work you’re doing and the people that you meet, it can be overwhelming. When I left Nepal and gave my speech, I had an overwhelming rush of emotion.

In Louisiana there were a smaller number of volunteers and while I watched her give her goodbye speech, I knew that these experiences weren’t just something I was impacted by. It’s obviously bigger and to see my daughter have that same experience was really cool (even though you’re sitting there trying to keep it together and not cry in front of everybody).

What’s amazing is that you’re sharing something with one of your children and you didn’t say to her this is what’s going to happen to you. She experienced the same emotion and that’s a powerful teaching tool.

Yes, and my other daughters now want to do one too so that’s the ripple. Lilly was in high school and living at home at the time, so it was a natural thing to do because she was around. The others were in college (now they’re out of college) and they are also saying we should do one of those trips. It was a personal ripple in the household. My parents set the example for me early in my life and I’m now coming back to doing something that had an impact on me. It was something I got away from as life went on. You a raise a family, get a job and try to get ahead. One day I woke up and thought to myself when was the last time that I had helped somebody that wasn’t related to me. That I did something that didn’t involve me having a job and putting food on the table or a roof over somebody’s head. It was really finding my way back to it and it happened shortly after my mother passed away. That probably added to the effort that I had to make in Nepal to hold back my emotions.

How were you introduced into giving back during your childhood?

During the summer, my mother worked with Head Start programs and would bring my sister and I along. We would sit and play with the kids or do whatever we could because we were young. That was the first experience that I can remember. My father was also active, supporting an immigrant family coming to the US from Laos and helping with their transition. He helped out through the church. Those were the two memorable and impactful experiences that I had growing up.

A friend of mine moved to Sweden 15 to 20 years ago and he noticed that the country has a complete social safety net. I wonder what the potential downside is to having strong institutions that help people which could then make others feel like they don’t need to pitch in. He observed that individuals there are a little less communally generous. If somebody trips and falls, people are less likely to rush to their side and help. Do you agree with this?

You have Nepal, Louisiana and Puerto Rico, and if that story is true, Nepal would be the community where everyone helps each other, and Louisiana is on the other end of the spectrum as the richer society (people wait for insurance checks to come in).

My experience is limited so I have to be careful but the resolve, resiliency, the communal feeling at the lower end of the socioeconomic strata is extraordinary. It’s really extraordinary even if insurance is available. We talked about some of the limitations and constraints when you get a little bit of money from your insurance company or the government. There are extremes and there are areas in the middle and I think there is plenty of room in the middle for private individuals to donate money or their time to help others. There’s a wide swath between the two and hopefully there’s enough people who are generous with their time and money (within their means) to help others when they need it. Every time I volunteer with All Hand and Hearts I’m always impressed with how young the volunteers are. It gives you hope that the younger generation are selfless and want to help others. I know people who work for half a year and then volunteer for the rest of the year. They don’t have the same paths that you and I might’ve taken (go to college, work, family and retire).

When you get away from the office and go out into these environments you can get really inspired by people who are 18 or 25 years old. The people who work for a couple months to make just enough money to purchase their flight to the next volunteer location (whether it’s refugees in Greece or France). You can’t always sit there and rely upon your government or whatever institution there is to help.

I don’t want to romanticize the communitarian response because the goal is to get people back to their prior lives (as close as possible) and these programs do work. The resources that come from the government, insurance companies are helping and maybe if they’re crowding out (using an economics term) some communal response, you can get a better outcome. I don’t want to belittle that at all.

Multiple sources of money and support are welcome so there is less slipping through the cracks. People and communities will always slip through the cracks, it just happens but less will do so because help is coming from multiple areas including people who are just volunteering.

The world travelers that you have mentioned are incredibly selfless. Do you think that lifestyle choice is sort of anti-community in the sense that those individuals don’t really have a community of their own?

Their communities wind up being where they’re going and helping people. It’s not community in the sense of what you think is a community (this is my neighborhood) but a community in terms of these are other likeminded people who I’ve chosen to help and volunteer with. The world travelers want to be in that environment and help others. Bill Gates has been tremendously successful (obviously in a business aspect) and he can help in many ways because of the fortune that he’s developed, and he has chosen to give a lot and help others. Not everybody has the means to help in that way and other people choose to help in this way and that’s the community that they wish to be in. If I want to help people that’s a great environment to be in because nearly everybody that’s going is going to help and that is a great way to do it. It also comes with downside to, what do you do when you go home. You leave Nepal and you go back home and think what now. I think you can do both, it’s not one or the other. Both experiences can coexist.

What advice would you give on making the decision to volunteer and are there any skills that someone could build?

All Hands and Hearts has an application process and they ask all kinds of questions to see what skills you have. Fortunately, there are humanitarians who have engineering and construction skills and then there’s others that don’t. The advice I would give is don’t be self-conscious and don’t have the mindset of ‘how could I possibly help, what good could I possibly do.’ There are plenty of different jobs and people to help you figure out what to do when you get there. It’s just taking that step and in my specific example, be ready for communal living. Most people find that part fun, meeting new people, learning their backstories and life experiences. Figuring out how you can learn from them and things that you can maybe change about your own life or the impact that they have on you and vice versa. It is being open minded.

My guest today is David Scott. David, thank you very much.


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