H'Burg woman travels to Puerto Rico to help rebuild


On Saturday, Nicole Pearson of Hattiesburg stepped out of her comfort zone in a big way.

Having sold all of her household furnishings and a majority of her personal belongings, Pearson packed her car with the remaining things she wanted to keep and dropped it and her dog, Champ, off with friends and headed off on a new adventure.

For the next two months, Pearson, 21, who is a Clinton native and came to the Hub City to attend nursing school at the University of Southern Mississippi, will be volunteering with All Hands volunteers in Puerto Rico.

All Hands is a U.S.-based, non-profit organization that provides relief to residents in areas affected by natural disasters in the U.S. and internationally. They are currently providing volunteer teams in Houston, Texas, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Nepal and Peru. Disasters include flooding, hurricane and earthquake recovery.

Pearson is part of several teams in Puerto Rico, who is helping return as much normalcy to the area after Hurricane Maria, regarded as the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rico, hit the country in late September as a Category 5 hurricane with winds of up to 175 mph.There were 547 fatalities reported. Maria is the third-costliest Atlantic hurricane with $91.6 billion in damage.

 “It is the worst natural disaster on record in Puerto Rico and nearly three months later, the island still does not have power and potable water in many areas,” said Erik Dyson, C.E.O. of All Hands and Hearts. “As always, our team worked with local partners to carefully assess the damage and identify communities with the greatest need for help."

Most recently an employee of Georgia Blue, Pearson said volunteering is something she’s done her whole life. “It’s been a huge part of who I am,” she said just two days before she flew out of New Orleans Feb. 1. Case in point, for Christmas, Pearson and her best friend went to Hattiesburg’s Field House (for the Homeless), set up a Christmas tree and bought presents, individualizing those for the children. “That’s just my passion and what I want to do,” she said.

Pearson’s friend, Laura Beth, who traveled to Houston, Texas, as an All Hands volunteer following Hurricane Harvey’s devastating flooding, introduced Pearson to the nonprofit. It was after hearing about her friend’s experiences, that Pearson looked up the nonprofit and applied.

 “I didn’t put a specific time,” she said, noting she put she was available from February until the end of 2019. “Obviously, they needed people now, because they told me the first day I was available they wanted me to come for at least two months.”

At that point, she realized this was a thing that was going to happen.

“I just did it,” she said.

With a three-week countdown until her departure date, Pearson sold most of her earthly possessions and got loose ends tied up as she prepared to leave.

“I had an entire house full of stuff and it’s all gone,” she said. “I’m taking a bag of books and a bag of clothes and that’s it.”

Not sure what to expect, Pearson knows she will be staying at a base camp outfitted with air mattresses, bunk beds, and more than likely cold showers. “Laura Beth told me it was probably more like buckets of water.” She said. ‘I know it’s really going to be a humbling experience.”

An early message did report cold water and things about as she expected, “definitely really bad. You wouldn't think mountains would have a flooding problem, but they do. A lot of people still don't even have power.”

Although Pearson is on her own, Laura Beth is stationed at a base camp more than two hours away. Having just regained power on the island, a territory of the United States, AT&T is currently the only carrier functioning on the island. “Thankfully I have AT&T. so I’m hoping that will work with my phone.”

 In a message on Tuesday, Pearson said those in her base camp are from everywhere – Britain, Germany, Spain and Australia and are both old and young.

Pearson and her team will be rebuilding houses and cleaning up in the areas of Yabucoa (located on the south-eastern coast of Puerto Rico, the valley of Yabucoa is surrounded by the hills of the San Lorenzo Batholith on three sides and by the Caribbean Sea on the fourth) and Barranquitas (a small mountain municipality located in the central region of Puerto Rico. Barranquitas is about one hour by winding roads from San Juan, the capital).  Pearson said in Houston the volunteers tried to salvage what they could of houses. “There was a certain level they could use, and if they had that, they would gut it and rebuild, but then a lot of these houses I’ve seen there’s nothing left so there’s nothing to rebuild, so we’ll be completely starting over.”

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” she said. “Hard labor is not my thing”

Early reports are that the weather was pretty hot and it rained almost every day. “But the people here are so thankful and so kind,” Pearson said.

She said there are a lot of animals around. “We have two kittens on base,” she said. “And at one home I was working at there were about six dogs.”

This mission is strictly volunteer, with volunteers financing the journey themselves or with the help of donors.

She described the support she received prior to leaving as “absolutely the most amazing thing that’s ever happened.” Many guests who frequented Georgia Blue and found out about her plans provided financial assistance, while others wrote “Good Luck” on their checks.

“It’s just like random people helping and even people who couldn’t support me financially helped me move or sell things,” she said. “Even on the Hattiesburg Buy, Sell Trade Facebook page, where she listed many of the items she was trying to sell, people messaged her saying they wanted to buy something to help her out.

“Another person, who has family in Puerto Rico, told me she had not been able to make the trip to check on her family, but thanked me for making the journey saying, ‘If you need anything while you’re there, I’ll contact my Mom and let her know. Thank you so much.’ That’s just really crazy.”

She said her friends had been real supportive. “I have some really good friends. Like this week, it’s been endless. I go to work in the morning, get off work and somebody is there helping pack, clean or move me and we didn’t stop until it was all done.”

Pearson has no idea if there will be facilities to wash clothes or purchase toothpaste, shampoo and the like. “This is not in my hands,” she said. “I’m just going to trust that this is going to work out.”

She admits there is a fear factor, the fear of the unknown. Prior to leaving her apprehension was just getting there.

“I know once I get there and get to doing stuff, once I see the work we’re doing it’s just going to be incredible. None of it is going to matter. It’s knowing right now that this may be my last hot shower, this is about to be like the last time I can listen to music on my phone or can go to this restaurant, or do things”

Base camp members are on a cooking rotation, but on days off they are responsible for their own food. Members are off one day a week and if there more than 30 days are required to take three days off and staff off base. During those days Pearson will be responsible for her own lodging and food, but wants to go and do some really cools things, noting the rain forests, ruins and other amazing stuff. “I’m hoping to have the money to do stuff.”

In addition to work boots, Work boots, Pearson shopped at Goodwill and Dirt Cheap to get work pants and a few other things. “They supply the T-shirts,” she said. Other than that she said she did pack a few decent clothes, just in case.

Volunteers can stay as long as they want and staff positions are available. While she hopes that might turn into something for her, Pearson knows those positions are hard to get, “but I’m kind of hoping it does. I think this will really turn into something.” Pearson attended Venture Church and said friends were trying to help her get involved with the missions aspect. “There are a couple of different things I’m looking into doing when I get back.

“I just think this is something. I never thought about it before, but have always known my whole life I wanted to help people. That’s why I went into nursing, because I just knew it was something I wanted to do, even though I didn’t know to what degree or extent. I just knew that’s what I wanted to base my life off of. Once this came up and I realized this is something that people can do for a living, I knew this was for me.”

Pearson wanted to finance this trip as much as she could on her own, “because I know if I’m going to keep doing this, I’m going to need help eventually. She has created an account for those who would like to support her and the cause she’s working for – http://bit.ly/2nK03CG

“People in Hattiesburg have been the most amazing,” she said. “People just have such bad connotations of the South sometime, but it’s just amazing the support this city has provided me. It all worked out, every little problem. It was meant to be.