When three major hurricanes tore through the Caribbean
earlier this year, they caused historic levels of devastation. Harvey dumped on
Houston. Irma shook up Florida and Puerto Rico. Then came Maria. For Fort
Lauderdale, Fla., Local 728 member Phil St. Jean, it was the island of Dominica
that he kept his eye on.
|Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Local 728 member Phil St. Jean works with volunteers to pass out care packages of food, water and toiletries to fellow Dominica residents after Hurricane Maria tore through the island.
St. Jean was born on the small West Indies island, 350 miles southeast of Puerto Rico, and moved to the U.S. when he was 13. But he never forgot his home country.
So when he heard that it had been bombarded by Maria’s 160 mph winds, which felled trees and ripped up entire homes, he knew he had to help.
“It’s the land of my birth, it’s in my heart,” said St. Jean, a journeyman wireman.
He’s been making regular trips over the years. For the past three, he spent his own money to give away backpacks filled with school supplies for students in need, assisted by donations from Local 728. He knows how to get aid in to the country without getting lost in the bureaucracy. And he has volunteers on the ground to help, who can often be seen sporting white polo shirts with the saying, “Hand in Hand, United We Stand,” items he also purchased.
In 2015, when Tropical Storm Erika struck Dominica, St. Jean went down, also with help from his local. When he approached Business Manager Dave Svetlick this time, it was an easy ‘yes.’
“He has first-hand knowledge of the island and knows how to get supplies to the people who need them,” Svetlick said. “He’s always giving back to his homeland.”
Svetlick and Assistant Business Manager Zac Cassidy worked with Fifth District Vice President Joe Davis and International Executive Council member and Miami Local 349 Business Manager Bill Riley to secure a pallet of water from an 18-wheeler already on its way to hurricane-affected areas in Florida and Puerto Rico. Local 728 also contributed $1,000. With that and about $1,800 of his own money, St. Jean passed out hundreds of care packages filled with food, drinks and necessities like soap and toilet paper.
“They were very grateful,” St. Jean said. “They don’t have much.”
St. Jean says there is poverty throughout the country of about 74,000 people. Now, they’ve been pushed further down, living in roofless homes with glassless windows. One photo St. Jean took shows a beaten-up truck stuck in the broken concrete of a road riddled with downed power lines. In another photo, a pink house looks as though Maria scooped it up, only to drop it down on uneven land, tilted and unsteady.
St. Jean’s own home on the island wasn’t spared. Like so many, the windows and walls were blown out, with debris scattered everywhere. Water flooded the entire house, damaging the wood floors. And with so much damage, many are unable work, like the tenant who rents from St. Jean. He says he’s stopped charging her rent until she can get back to work.
“There’s so many places that need help,” St. Jean said. “I only wish I could do more.”
Svetlick and Cassidy said they’re continuing to work with St. Jean and may do a clothing drive next.
“I can’t say enough about his character. He’s a proud IBEW member,” Cassidy said. “He’s got a place in heaven.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Dominicans too.
“One woman told me, ‘you have the blood of Jesus,’” St. Jean said. “If I have money in my pocket, I will help you. It’s how I was raised.”
St. Jean and his wife set up a GoFundMe page for anyone who wishes to help: https://www.gofundme.com/hand-in-hand-united-we-stand.