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Laconia man helps St. Thomas hurricane recovery efforts

By BEA LEWIS,
Union Leader Correspondent

November 12. 2017 9:16PM
Art Ablemann of Laconia spent 10 days volunteering on St. Thomas helping a youth program participate in hurricane recovery efforts. (COURTESY)



LACONIA — Granite Staters donated truckloads of nonperishable food and water to hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico but a Lakes Region man who just returned from volunteering on the island of St. Thomas said their needs are staggering and many remain unmet.

Art Ablemann a former high school principal, math teacher and guidance counselor who spent 10 days on the Caribbean island recently, said utility repair crews had just started to arrive when he was there less than two weeks ago.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in September just two weeks apart, washing out roads, destroying the electrical grid, ruining homes, businesses and closing schools.

“One in 10 know someone, or know someone who knows someone who have been to St. Thomas on a cruise ship or stayed at an all-inclusive resort,” said Ablemann.

Many of St. Thomas; 50,000 residents are still living in rain-sodden homes sprouting black mold as a result of missing walls and roofs, and the tourism industry on which its economy is based has been shuttered, compounding preexisting societal ills

The juxtaposition in economic class, Ablemann said, is eye opening. Just a 20-minute taxi ride from where he was working cutting up downed trees in the middle of the 50-square-mile island, where homes are mere shanties, the shops at a cruise ship port sell duty-free diamonds and Rolex watches.

In the wake of the hurricanes, he wanted to volunteer his help, but was disheartened when he began to investigate his options and discovered that the Red Cross and FEMA have a vetting process that takes a year to complete.

“It’s amazing how hard it is to volunteer,” he said.

He found a grateful recipient of his offer of help from My Brother’s Workshop, a nonprofit Virgin Islands charitable group formed on the tenants of providing hope, faith and purpose to at-risk and high-risk youth ages 16-24, by offering mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement.

Although Ablemann had never been to St. Thomas he felt a connection through his daughter’s best friend, who worked there after graduating from UNH with a hospitality degree. She had returned to New Hampshire for a short break and had visited the Ablemann family shortly before Hurricane Irma bore down on the island.

Another New Hampshire man is among those playing a role in recovery efforts. Bruce Twyon of Hopkinton, a retired state trooper, spends half the year living on the neighboring island of St. John running a charter boat business.

Grateful that his two boats Southern Hospitality and So Ho II that operate out of Cruz Bay survived the hurricanes, Twyon put the vessels to good use deploying them on multiple humanitarian missions.

Initially, Twyon and his two other captains helped personally evacuate residents from St. John and ferried them to Cyril E. King Airport near Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

He picked up 15 of the 25 New York State Troopers who arrived to help and their gear, from the airport on St. Thomas and transported them to St. John at night when navigational lights or markers in the waters off both islands weren’t working, making for a potentially perilous trip.

Alongside his two other boat captains, Twyon also helped deliver much needed medicine and medical supplies to the hospital on Tortola at the request of the Virgin Island Relief Fund.

While on the island, Ablemann helped in the café and bakery run by My Brother’s Workshop that typically provides vocational training in cooking and guest services. More recently they were making some 500 meals a day helping feed those in need.

Founded in 2007, the nonprofit is training the youth of the islands in woodworking and carpentry. Teams of trainers are now taking groups of students out each day to remove debris and secure homes as part of the recovery efforts.

During his time on the island, Ablemann put his skill with a chainsaw to good use, and took out a group of students to clear storm smashed trees. Youth in the program are also playing an important role in the recovery efforts, installing sheets of plywood over shattered doors and blown out windows. A lifelong educator, Ablemann says participants will need ongoing support to prevent them from succumbing to the lure of easy money and returning to street activities.

On another day, Ablemann accompanied a group of students as they rode in the back of a truck and distributed diapers and baby formula to grateful mothers. The experience was powerful for the students who found themselves in a position of authority being able to help.

Students in the program also used their woodworking skills to build a coffin for a classmate who was killed and his family didn’t have the money to buy one.

As a veteran educator, Ablemann sees value in the program but believes the students will need continuing support after learning a skill and landing a job.

“It was a great experience. I will go back,” he declared.

Ablemann invites those interested in volunteering or aiding in recovery efforts on St. Thomas to contact him at artablemann@gmail.com


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