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“Don’t Forget Us:” Five Students Share Stories of Life in the Virgin Islands after Two Hurricanes Devastate Their Homeland

BRISTOL, Tenn., Nov. 14, 2017 – How would you feel if you were more than 1,600 miles away from your family watching not one but two hurricanes wreak havoc on your island home? Tequania Lake (’17), Odessa Sotomayor (’21), Jahmira Rogers (’21), Germaine LaRonde (’20), and Aneesa~ Hedrington (’20) all came together with King University Chaplain Dr. Brian Alderman during a service on Oct. 13 in Memorial Chapel to share their heartfelt stories of how Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the U.S. Virgin Islands. Their goal was simple – to educate the community about what happened to their homeland of St. Thomas and share ways people can help.

 

Their Story: Our Paradise Home Has Been Devastated

Tequania Lake began the service by sharing a slideshow presentation depicting scenes of destruction on St. Thomas. The island is 32 square miles with approximately 51,000 people who call it home; a few thousand more residents than Bristol TN/VA. Lake began the slide show with remarkable photos of St. Thomas before Irma and Maria swept through, then shared a photo from Facebook of a gentleman sitting in what used to be the front of his house. As the man looked out onto the area below, he described how even though Hurricane Irma had taken his wall, he now had a great view to better absorb nature.

As her presentation continued, Lake reiterated the survival instincts and strength of the islanders.

Gasps from the audience could be heard as photos of the damage appeared on the screen. Their high school is now without a roof. “Families have to stand for hours at a time just to get inside a grocery store for what little merchandise is available. Officials estimate the hospitals on both St. Thomas and St. Croix will have to be torn down and rebuilt because of such tremendous damage,” said Lake.

Lake said that her family is surviving. “They were taught to survive. There was some flooding and emotional feelings. Some of them are depressed because there is nothing to wake up to. They’re still on [mandatory] curfew, so they have to be in the house by 6 [p.m.]; you are in a house in darkness, and there is nothing to do. I think that is what is affecting them the most right now.

“What made it more difficult for me is that all my mom’s children are in the U.S. in college, and so she went through this hurricane by herself,” added Lake tearfully. “It was really hard because – it’s hard knowing that your mom is suffering and there is nothing you can do.”

The students took turns telling of their families circumstances and of how many of the houses on the island are built from concrete to withstand strong storms; however, roofs are gone; walls are missing, and most homes and buildings experienced severe flooding including their own. Washing is now done from buckets outside, and food is cooked over make shift fire pits made from concrete blocks. Communication is sparse.

According to The Virgin Islands Consortium, on Nov. 1, U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp revealed that 38 percent of St. Thomas, 19 percent of St. Croix, and 14 percent of St. John had been restored with power.

Students described how having to wait for up to two weeks to receive word from their families was one of the hardest parts. Sotomayor said, “There was a lot of crying, a lot, a lot of crying because you are just hoping and wondering if your family is ok.”

Rogers spoke of her large family including a number of younger siblings, and how it took around two weeks to get in contact with them. “Water came under the doors and through the windows, and eventually, water started coming up through the floor because the ground was so saturated,” said Rogers.

Sotomayor’s father’s house is completely gone; he now is living out of his jewelry store. Hedrington was still unsure how her father is doing. However, her mother and others are having to use rain water collected in cisterns for even the smallest task such as cooking and bathing. Hedrington said of her mother, “She is a survivor.”

Although the students all call St. Thomas home, they were not close friends – until the hurricanes blew through the Virgin Islands. Lake said, “When we heard the hurricane was approaching, we knew it was time to come together.” The five started a group chat and began praying together every night. They each agreed that good can come out of difficult times. They bonded and became a strong support system for one another. “Even though you are going through a storm, you still have to be hopeful, and you have to be optimistic. Because we are not there, we have to be the light for our parents,” Lake said.

When asked about their future plans of either staying in the states or going home to St. Thomas, each student said plans now included going back home to their homeland and giving back. Rogers, who is studying Psychology at King, said, “I feel like it is most necessary for me to go back home and help those who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress or any other mental disorder or illnesses.”

“Making the connections with all these girls, and also seeing that the professors and students around the school who heard about the disaster – they definitely showed their concern. They were willing to help with whatever we needed help with,” said LeRonde. “They showed their concern about it as well and would say they were here if we needed to talk. That gave us more comfort and faith that we would be ok.”

Aneesa~ Hedrington said, “All I have to say is prayer works. It really does. Prayer and patience is the key. Don’t take life for granted.”

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP?

Make a Donation

  • Monetary offerings were collected during special prayer services for Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The funds will be presented to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to be disbursed.
  • King University’s Student Government Association (SGA) collected items to be sent to the U.S. Virgin Islands including: toothbrushes, baby wipes, socks, sanitary napkins/tampons, and washcloths.

“We felt as if the best way to support our students affected would be to collect donations in order to begin healing the damage that couldn’t be undone,” said SGA Vice President Jess Vargo (‘19).

 

Host a Student for the Holidays

Each year, there are several students who are not able to travel home for the holidays – Thanksgiving week and the extended Christmas. This holiday season, the numbers will be greater as it is unlikely the island students will be able to travel home due to the devastation. There are several ways you can help.

  • Host a student for the holiday.
  • Host a student for a period of time to get them off campus.
  • Volunteer to have a student stay with you for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
  • Come spend time with the students over the holidays – the Virgin Island students especially as they cannot go home yet, due to airport damage.

Contact Suzanne Mullins, assistant dean of Residential Life, at smmullins@king.edu or 423.652.4743 or Crystal Davidson, international student advisor, at cldavids@king.edu or 423.652.4795.

 

The Simple Things Mean so Much

Prayer is always helpful. Each and every one of the students would appreciate your prayers.

“If you see us around, you can stop, and you can give us a hug because more than likely we need it,” said Tequania Lake.

You can watch the chapel service in its entirety at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0IBtlQgFeWQ.

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