May 01 2023 / Round the Table Magazine
United in impact
By Matt Pais
In 2009, Jessica Thompson discovered a feeling that advisors know well: She started helping people, and she didn’t want to stop.
At first, Thompson — who is now CEO of All Hands and Hearts (AHAH), a volunteer-powered disaster relief organization that is the charity partner for two MDRT meetings during 2023 — had only planned to volunteer for three weeks. While traveling through Laos, the native of the United Kingdom overheard people on a bus talking about the organization, and she thought she would go to Indonesia, join in for a little while, and then return to her travels and “a life of beaches and art museums.”
To put it very mildly: That’s not what happened.
Impact in action
In Indonesia, she helped bring down unsafe structures impacted by an earthquake, salvaged building materials to help homeowners rebuild using pieces of old properties and build temporary housing for people in transition. Thompson, an English teacher who had also worked in television, was immediately astonished by the impact each volunteer was able to have and the communal nature of the organization. She stayed for five months, during which time an earthquake hit Haiti, and Thompson saw an enormous need she couldn’t resist.
She spent a year and a half in Haiti (where there were 100 to 125 volunteers per day compared to the 20 to 30 in Indonesia), helping to demolish affected buildings and remove debris that often meant hauling away large, heavy pieces of concrete. While the physical work was very strenuous, Thompson stressed that she is “neither a superhero nor a gym bunny.”
“Everybody can get involved and participate,” she said, “as long as they’re willing to roll up their sleeves.”
While she remained in Haiti to build schools, a tsunami hit Japan, and Thompson told AHAH founder David Campbell, who also was working in Haiti at the time, that the organization needed an official volunteer coordinator for the efforts in Japan — and that it should be her.
The rest of Thompson’s story continues that same way: She worked as volunteer coordinator for many projects until there were so many volunteer coordinators that she advocated to become the director of them. After a few years in that role, she moved into operations to oversee programs like the recovery effort in the United States following hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017. Then she helped build systems and processes for the AHAH human resources department.
In the second quarter of 2022, Thompson became CEO. Now she “continues to be a volunteer advocate and make sure we’re providing transformative opportunities for volunteers and giving them real, tangible, meaningful things to do that have a direct impact on the communities we serve,” Thompson said. Those communities have also expanded in recent years, she adds, noting that AHAH has broadened its definition of a disaster and responded not just to weather-related events but executed COVID-related support in 2020 and 2021, and in 2022 aided Ukrainian refugees in Ukraine and Poland.
“We’re keen to find communities where the local capacity has been overwhelmed and to leverage the people around the world who look at what’s happening and say, ‘I could go there and do something,’” she said. “We provide a safe, effective way for them to plug in and do just that.”
What does that mean for MDRT members? Two things: The money raised at the Annual Meeting and Global Conference will go to support their disaster relief programs. One project the funding will support is building schools in typhoon-affected areas of the Philippines, using bamboo-frame construction that, Thompson said, has a 60% smaller carbon footprint than a typical concrete school design. AHAH hopes to utilize this sustainable, climate-friendly design elsewhere as well, and is currently going through the approval process for this construction in Nepal.
AHAH’s work also means MDRT members can get involved, and not just through donations. In addition to watching for potentially damaging weather and taking quick action when it’s safe and appropriate to send in assistance, AHAH also plans to spend the rest of 2023 repairing homes damaged in 2022 by Hurricane Ian in Florida; aiding with wildfire mitigation in California; building schools in Mexico, a continuation of work started after the 2017 earthquake; and working on the aforementioned school build in the Philippines.
Want to volunteer? Just fill out the application at allhandsandhearts.org/volunteer. Volunteers are responsible for traveling to the location, but once there (for as long as you choose) all costs for accommodation, food, tools and on-site guidance are provided. “Just show up, put your boots on, and go out and get to work,” Thompson said. That work has led to her finding friends from around the world — often seeing familiar faces from one location to the next — and rising through an organization in which more than 90% of positions are filled by former volunteers.
“It’s a typical story,” Thompson said. “You sign up for a short amount of time, fall in love with the impact you’re able to have and the people you’re able to meet, and you stick around.
“It sounds trite or cliché, but it changed my life. I found this community of people who just wanted to do the right thing, and I thought, How will anything else ever be satisfying, except to be surrounded by these people who have so much commitment, inspiration and dedication to being there and helping people?”