Words and Photos by Sarah Brady
Last February, during winter quarter of my junior year at UC Santa Cruz, I went on a mission to deliver water filters and solar technologies to St. Thomas Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the wake of the 2017 hurricane season. Though largely overlooked by mainstream media, St. Thomas and the rest of the Virgin Islands were devastated by Irma and Maria in September. I designed my own project in collaboration with Changing Tides Foundation (CTF) and organized to get independent study credit for my minor in Sustainability Studies. CTF had raised over $10,000 for two nonprofit partners on St. Thomas Island in the US Virgin Islands and anxious to put those funds to good use. I had also been offered a work-trade spot on a catamaran in the nearby British Virgin Islands in February, so it lined up perfectly . Becky —the Executive Director of CTF—and I worked together with their partners on St. Thomas island to determine what kinds of supplies would be most beneficial to each of them.
One partner was the Virgin Islands Montessori School and International Academy (VIMSIA), a non-profit organization and the leading green school in the Caribbean. They teach and practice sustainability at their school by gardening, collecting rain for drinking water, grey water for irrigation and aluminum cans for recycling. Their school was also entirely solar-powered before the hurricanes, meaning they were producing and selling as much solar power to the utility company as they were purchasing. Although they still had working panels after the storms, they could not use the power they were making because they were hooked up to the whole island’s power grid, which was shut down. In rebuilding, the school has a new goal of becoming completely off-grid by equipping the school with enough batteries to store the power necessary to it running. This way the school wouldn’t have to rely on the island-wide power grid, which has always had random power outages, but have become more frequent after the storms. Students told me they can expect the power to go out every other day for about an hour—that’s just normal. During the time I was there I experienced at least 6 power outages.
When Becky told Michael Born—the director of VIMSIA—about SoulR carts— mobile solar powered refrigeration units ideal for vending cold snacks and drinks—he was excited about the potential to use them both for education about solar power and for fundraising efforts towards going off-grid. Changing Tides Foundation donated 2 SoulR Carts to VIMSIA, and they matched our donation and purchased 2 additional SoulR carts, so they ended up with a total of 4. I picked up, assembled and delivered the first SoulR cart to the school and talked to students about how it works and what it can be used for.
Our other partner was the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, a non-profit building a collection of permanent funds for the educational, physical, social, cultural and environmental well-being of the people of the Virgin Islands. To the Community Foundation, Changing Tides Foundation donated 100 Sawyer water filters and 50 faucet adapters, 20 Goal Zero solar flashlights/phone rechargers, 25 solar flashlights, a solar generating kit with a large battery, solar panel and lighting and 1 SoulR cart. The VI Community Foundation helped determine how to distribute these items for the largest community impact.
Brittany Robinson of the Community Foundation and I, on behalf of Changing Tides Foundation, personally distributed water filters to local schools. The majority of residents of the USVI rely on rainwater collected in large cisterns for drinking water. After the hurricanes water sat still and bacteria grew because there was no electricity to power the pumps. Some people added extra chlorine to their water, and others decided to take the risk of getting sick from bacteria. Each Sawyer water filter is capable of filtering bacteria, pollutants, and heavy metals out of up to 100,000 gallons of water, and they only cost about $50 USD each, so they are an affordable, sustainable solution to clean drinking water needs. We spoke to teachers and students and taught them how to use and maintain the Sawyer filters and explained why access to clean drinking water is so important.
Christina Chanes—a local school teacher and super-volunteer whom I was connected with through the Community Foundation—distributed the remaining water filters to teachers & classrooms all over St. Thomas in teacher supply kits. She determined that the SoulR cart could be of great use in Ivanna Eudora Kean public high school’s culinary and hospitality program, and connected me with the teacher of the program. Christina delivered solar flashlights and phone rechargers to focus groups of teachers, volunteer groups, instructors, and frontline folks who work in the community and deal with either youth or seniors. This way they can be used as educational tools, and they can reach a broader audience. Thereafter Christina began touring the the solar generating kit to different events all over the Virgin Islands, demonstrating and promoting the potential of solar power to the whole community. I was so happy to meet Christina and hear her creative ideas for sharing our donations with the community. She interviewed me about CTF's work in St. Thomas on her university radio show. We hoped the solar technologies we donated would help inspire the community to invest in renewable, decentralized energy systems in their community after the hurricanes.
All of these donations were an investment in education. Whether the donation went directly to a school or not, education was the overarching goal of this project. These supplies are not going to fix everything that the community members of St. Thomas are experiencing post-hurricanes. Rather, these donations will become tools for educating the community on the potential of sustainable technologies to meet clean water and power needs in the Virgin Islands and maybe just help make things a bit easier. By bringing cutting-edge sustainable technologies into the learning spaces of this community, we are supporting existing efforts for environmental sustainability in the rebuilding process. By partnering with experienced non-profit organizations in St. Thomas, we were able to select the most valuable donations for the community and distribute those donations through pre-existing networks of non-profits and volunteers.
Logistics of getting the supplies to the Virgin Islands was more difficult and took longer than we initially anticipated. I went to the airport with two suitcases full of Sawyer water filters and Goal Zero solar products, but at the last minute the airline wouldn’t put my bags on the flight because of the lithium ion batteries in the Goal Zero products. I had to send my dad to the San Diego airport to remove the Goal Zero products and send the suitcases with water filters a couple of days later. Since the SoulR carts are fairly large, they had to be ground shipped on a pallet from San Diego to Florida, and then by boat from Florida to St. Thomas Island. Becky added the lithium ion Goal Zero products I was forced to leave behind to the ground shipment.
I was supposed to pick up the pallet while I was in St. Thomas, but delays in manufacturing threw off the whole shipping timeline and the bigger shipment didn’t arrive before I left St. Thomas. We had the manufacturer send one ready-to-go SoulR cart ahead of the rest so I was able to pick this one up, provide a demo at VIMSIA and then deliver it to Ivanna Eudora Kean high school. Tyler Norris—the founder of SoulR carts—visited St. Thomas two weeks after I left and picked up the remaining pallet shipment. He assembled the 4 remaining SoulR carts, delivered them to VIMSIA and provided education on the design to students at VIMSIA and Ivanna Eudora Kean. Brittany picked up the Goal Zero products from the pallet shipment and delivered them to Christina.
The on-the-ground work was challenging as well. After two extremely devastating category 5 hurricanes, people are just trying to get their lives back together. More than 3,200 Virgin Islanders moved to the U.S. mainland to seek job opportunities and a better life after Irma and Maria. Public schools were still running half days half-staffed in February. People were obviously overwhelmed with the amount of work they have ahead. I reminded myself to have patience, and to have gratitude for every minute of time given to me by each person. I had to be very independent on this journey . I traveled alone with a mission to accomplish and it was up to me to make it happen.
My time on the sailboat was a good distraction while I was waited for the rest of the supplies to arrive. I spent one week aboard the 60’ catamaran in the middle of my trip. I learned some basic sailing and boat-hand skills, and explored the British Virgin Islands by sea. The devastation was flooring. I saw concrete homes stripped to the floor, and hundreds of sailboats washed ashore and smashed by the storm surges. I snorkeled all over retrieving all kinds of debris from the ocean floor, and I saw big piles of burning debris on the shoreline of Little Jost Van Dyke.
Although at times it felt like I was constantly hitting bumps in the road, in the end everything came together. By the end of my 3 1/2 weeks in the Virgin Islands, I had collected and distributed all the supplies that arrived in the time I was there, and organized the pick-up and distribution if the supplies arriving after my departure. I did my best to stay calm and focused every time a challenge arose, and I think that approach a made it easier for me to find solutions. The beautiful tropical environment and Caribbean culture definitely helped me stay relaxed too. This project reminded me to have patience and gratitude for the lessons we learn along the way—to ditch expectations and embrace the journey.