March 21, 2019
There is a place on the east end of St. John. A place where the sun hits the water, transforming into a sea of glitter. A place where a beautiful, resilient tree still stands to provide shade and support life. A tree with roots that run as deep as the woman who walks upon the sand each day; Thalia Reyes.
Thalia Reyes moved to St. John in 2009. She walks the same steps as her ancestors, on land belonging to her family, passed down through generations since the 1700s.The land is life. The hill and the beach are special, and magical. The air is full of flavours, sweetness from flowers, salt from the sea, tinged with the smoke from a small fire pit. It is a beautiful place.
“I shipped a mobile home to St. John and placed it at the top of the hill, ” Thalia recalls. “There is a turn-off before you get to my area with a former residence there of my uncles. If the path is followed, there is an area on the top of the property that’s a gravesite – my great-great-grandfather is buried up there.”
The whole area means a great deal to Thalia and her family. “People do hike up there and we ask them to say a prayer for my family. It’s a very sacred place.”
Unfortunately, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it became difficult and dangerous to visit the site. Thalia recalls the situation on the beach. “All structures had been pushed over. Trees were pushed over.”
Closer to home, her hill also suffered. “I lost my home entirely. It blew apart one section of the rectangle and the rest imploded,” she says. “The road sustained water damage run-off. It caused crevasses as big as a person’s body to form. It’s physically hard to walk up it…Everything was destroyed and spread down the mountainside.”
Fifteen months passed before Thalia received assistance. Piece by piece, All Hands and Hearts volunteers helped retrieve Thalia’s personal belongings and fire-lined debris down a hill that spans 760 feet with an elevation of 300 feet.
“I didn’t think I was going to be able to get the help,” Thalia remembers. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but they are young, they didn’t get too scared by the hill. That was an experience I will never forget.”
For Thalia, the wait for help had been a long and painful one. “There were tears in my eyes knowing that someone was finally coming to help me…one by one they went up that hill and piece by piece they brought down parts and pieces of my mobile home…I’m very, very pleased with the service and grateful to each and every one of them.”
Volunteers loved working and spending time with Thalia. There were Sunday lunches, swims in perfectly blue water, and a Christmas party, with warm company. It was nothing but gratitude all around.
For Thalia, despite the loss of her home, the storms have not dampened her spirit. “It didn’t take away my faith in people,” she says. “We have come together even more as a community.The storms just made it a little bit more precious, and how we should be.
I didn’t realize how attached I was to things prior…I just had my life, my health, and stuff wasn’t important anymore. It released a little bit of the tension I had. I said ‘Oh my God, how do I replace all the things I had?’
They can be, but my life can’t.”
Story and photography by Alexandra Tamburro for All Hands and Hearts – Smart Response.