While many organizations stopped deploying teams during the COVID-19 pandemic, All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) initiated a new operational system that allowed their teams back out into the field. Thanks to our partners AeroMexico, Air Canada, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Volaris Airlines for helping move AHAH teams.
2020 brought a devastating confluence of disasters. A record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, the slowdown of long-term recovery projects, and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on already vulnerable communities all contributed to an overwhelming environment for disaster response and relief organizations.
The need for humanitarian assistance is greater than ever, but the threat of spreading COVID-19 to communities complicates in-person responses. Organizations are forced to make tough decisions, balancing the need for volunteers in the field with the potential health risks of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Like many disaster response organizations, AHAH suspended volunteer programming at the onset of the pandemic. They faced the challenge of upholding long-term rebuilding commitments and supporting those experiencing acute COVID-19 related challenges, while still prioritizing the health and safety of their volunteers, staff, and the communities they serve.
Their solution: the newly designed DM12 volunteer initiative. This model draws upon expertise from 15 years in the disaster response sector, building a program framework that reduces the risk of infection and transmission. While it is impossible to conduct a completely risk-free program, their guidelines address every exposure possibility with concrete preventative measures.
The DM12 initiative restructures programs into a cohort model, where volunteers all arrive and depart on the same eight to twelve-week schedule. This aligned travel timeline minimizes the risk of external exposure. Significant consideration is given to ensure volunteer health prior to departure. Volunteers are highly encouraged to perform wellness checks for two weeks leading up to a program’s start by monitoring for any COVID-19 symptoms. Admittance to the program base is conditional on receiving a negative COVID-19 test result.
During the program, AHAH designates volunteers into bubbles of approximately five to ten people, with physical distancing enforced, to limit possible internal exposure. Outside of these bubbles, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is worn at all times to protect other volunteers, staff, and community members. Regular disinfection of frequented areas, temperature checks, wellness self-assessments, and COVID-19 testing all support participants’ health throughout the program duration. These precautions, coupled with limited interaction with local community members, not only protect the volunteers but also the communities they are supporting.
Having a strong pulse on local community conditions allows AHAH staff members to remain flexible and alter working conditions in accordance with infection risk levels. Depending on varying outbreak threats, staff responses vary from restricting bubble interactions to quarantining the affected base or suspending an entire program. In the event of a potential infection, the volunteer is tested immediately and placed into quarantine, where they receive food and accommodations as well as access to mental health services for the duration of isolation. Community safety is always a priority.
AHAH DM12 Volunteer rebuilding a school in the Caribbean after Hurricane Dorian
Since the DM12 program rollout in September, Airlink has supported five DM12 cohorts, sending 126 volunteers to international programs in the Bahamas and Mexico, as well as a domestic response in Los Angeles. Thanks to the generosity of our airline partners – AeroMexico, Air Canada, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Volaris Airlines – Airlink was able to support flights valuing over $100,000.
The programs we’ve supported fall into three project types: COVID-19 response, disaster response, and long-term recovery. Their Los Angeles-based program works with partner organizations to expand community COVID-19 testing and vaccination capacity and combat food insecurity. Meanwhile, volunteers in Santa María de Tonameca, Mexico are rebuilding disaster-resilient schools damaged by the September 2017 earthquakes. Other volunteer cohorts in the Bahamas are repairing and rebuilding essential infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
The DM12 model ensures AHAH can honor rebuilding commitments while also responding to ongoing emergencies, and Airlink is pleased to be able to help them deliver.
Even as COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out around the world, organizations will likely be grappling with the risks of conducting volunteer programs amidst a pandemic for some time. Programs that aim to promote a safe working environment during the COVID-19 pandemic also experience many challenges. Emergency response teams have even less control over working conditions than long-term recovery programs where the communities are typically more stable.
A DM12 Volunteer dispensing meal packs in LA
Ensuring volunteers have access to well-ventilated facilities, socially distant workspaces, and sufficient PPE and hygiene supplies drastically increases a program’s operational costs. However, if organizations are looking to restart their volunteer programs, AHAH’s DM12 initiative is an excellent model for responding to disasters while also promoting the health and safety of all involved.
LOS ANGELES, USA, and MARSH HARBOUR, BAHAMAS. All photos come courtesy of All Hands And Hearts. Featured are AHAH volunteers providing meals and COVID-19 testing in LA, and rebuilding schools in the Bahamas.