When Category 5 Hurricane Dorian roared ashore at East End Grand Bahama sweeping 16 feet of water into eleventh grader Arlington Watson’s High Rock home, it was his Governor General’s Youth Award training which kept him from panicking while huddled barefoot and damp with his mom and stepdad in their ceiling.
“Five to seven hours later when daylight came and the water in the house went down. I jumped out of the manhole and cut both my feet on pieces of glass. I used my GGYA first aid kit which I carried with me into the manhole to bandage up my feet until I eventually got shoes,” recalled Watson, who is pursuing his Silver Award from the local affiliate of the UK-based Duke of Edinburgh Award, a programme which offers young people the chance to experience new activities, grow in confidence and develop useful skills for life and work in a non-competitive environment.
Accustomed to “roughing it” and facing challenges head on during hiking trips for his Bronze Award, Watson had the fortitude necessary to help his stepfather knock a hole into the roof. Later, the 15-year-old walked around with bandaged feet until the rubble of a relative’s home yielded odd pairs of shoes that could fit. “When we went outside, I realized I left my GGYA rope inside the house, but I found some long wire and suggested we wrap it around us so we wouldn’t be blown away from each other,” said 15-year-old Watson. For a day and a half, the family of three survived off Capri Sun juice, raisin and food eaten straight from cans. They sought shelter in the bathroom of a destroyed home, spending the night in total darkness since their flashlights and phones had been damaged by sea water.
Watson, one of 30 participants in St Paul’s GGYA unit, attributes his resilience to the youth programme. It instilled him with grit and the ability to adapt. According to the school’s unit leader, Priya Doodnauth, about 75 percent of the participants suffered major damage to their homes. “A few lost almost everything. Some of the students lost family members. A lot of our participants say their GGYA skills helped them to survive during and after the hurricane,” said Mrs Doodnauth who oversees the unit along with her husband, Ravindra. Although the couple was challenged by a loss of a vehicle, four feet of flooding in their home and a badly damaged roof, they worked to pull their units together post Dorian. “There’s still no cable, internet and power in most places, the children are just happy to have activities and things to do with their friends that didn’t require any of those necessities,” said Mrs Doodnauth who also serves as leader for Ruthnell’s Technical Institute in Hawksbill, an “at-risk” unit.
She estimated 95 percent of that unit’s 25 participants sustained major damage to their homes. For many teens it was important to resume extracurricular activities. Young people needed a sense of stability and a return to some semblance of normalcy, said GGYA programme coordinators. For Watson, it helps keeps his mind off the family of six – two mothers, two toddlers and two teen boys his age – who sought shelter in a home next door and have not been seen since.
A slow return to normal
GGYA units across Grand Bahama face a wide array of challenges related to the storm as they find their focus post Dorian. Many of the island’s private schools resumed meetings last month. Public schools lag behind. Last year, Grand Bahama accounted for 10 units, 32 volunteers and 355 participants, ranking second to New Providence. Officials are expecting a significant dip in those numbers for 2019.
With so many lives in a state of flux, GGYA gives young people something to anticipate, said Linda Rahming, who manages the Lucaya International School (LIS) unit along with Dr Sylvia Bateman.
At LIS, 27 families lost everything – homes, contents and cars.
“Many parents have lost jobs. A number of students have not returned due to parents’ jobs [loss] or because the family relocated,” the unit leader said. “Many are still dealing with disaster in one way or another. Those who lost everything are still displaced awaiting insurance settlements. Others are living in houses with missing walls awaiting drywall being replaced. Those who are not directly badly impacted at home are still heavily involved with relief work, from delivering food and supplies to building.” As residents face months and even years of recovery, GGYA’s 31 participants at the school have leapt at the opportunity to donate their time and talents. “Students have volunteered in World Central Kitchen, preparing hot lunches and dinners when time permits. They have been assisting the local Rotary Club with assembling tents in East Grand Bahama,” said Ms Rahming.
“Our Girl-Up club provided feminine hygiene products to local families. Students are also helping replace drywall in damaged houses around the island.”
At Bishop Michael Eldon School (BMES), participants have carried out community service in conjunction with the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and local food drives. Sadly, the unit at BMES is believed to have lost one of its own. Sixteen-year-old Mateo Bethel, a Bronze participant, was declared missing. The eleventh grader has two cousins still active in the 20-strong unit. “Students have been provided with counselling and they are doing fairly well with that,” said Annika Linton, the school’s GGYA coordinator.
A few students and their families were forced to live temporarily in shelters having lost everything to Dorian, the schoolteacher advised.
“Pre-Dorian a lot of the students expressed that they made sure they had their GGYA backpacks packed and all their important documents waterproofed in the event they had to evacuate. I had my stuffed packed as well because of my exposure to GGYA. It made me ready. I had the lights, the whistle, the backpack, everything,” said Ms Linton who was fortunate to emerge virtually unscathed from Dorian despite flooding in her area. Surprisingly, BMES students hit the hardest by Dorian where the ones eagerly anticipating GGYA’s resumption post hurricane.
“I guess it might be a means of escape for them,” said Ms Linton. “They are with friends. Being among their peers and having a good time helps get their minds back to where they were pre-Dorian.”
An amazing community of young people Mrs Doodnauth said GGYA participants in Grand Bahama are “all positive.” “They are looking forward to rebuilding and continuing stronger than ever,” she said.