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Volunteer Spotlight: Poncho in the US Virgin Islands

The ability to live with very little has been very good for me.

Interview with Timothy Poncho

Name? Age? From? How much time have you spent on Program? 

Timothy Poncho, know as Ponch or Poncho. I’m 51. I’m from Minneapolis, Minnesota. 


What do you do back home? 

Landscape architect, I’ve been running my own company it’s called Lily Pad, and it’s home and land restoration. So I started my life restoring homes, and then got into designing them and building them, and all that, and I wanted to expand my world a little bit, and my career, and my job opportunities, so I went back to school when I was 40 and became a landscape architect, because I love the outdoors, and I love nature, and I became a master gardener as well, and so I created a company where I can do both land and home restoration, and so I like to focus on the whole piece of property from the curb to the back. Everything from the front driving in, to walking to the front door, through the home, through the back, and into the backyard. The idea is that one person has the whole vision of everything, how it’s all going to be done, instead of having different people come in with different ideas and different visions I can execute my one vision for the entire project. That includes the interior design as well. I’ve been running my own deal for about 20 years. It’s been really cool. Some projects are just interior design, some projects are just add on rooms, some projects are just the landscape architecture piece, or landscape design, sometimes I’m doing the installation, sometimes I have people that come and help, I have subcontractors, so every project is different, which is I love that, I love having everything that’s kind of different and flexible, and I get to use different skills, and different veins of my creativity for different projects. 


That must open a lot of different opportunities? 

It really does, the hard part is most people don’t believe that one person can do all of that. You’re kind of jack of all trades and master of none, but after 20 years I think, and I believe if you have that one creative vein in your system, if you like it, and are passionate about it, and over the years I’ve delved into certain things, and oh I love that, and if you love that then you get good at it, and you like to do it more, and then  I’m like oh I love this, and now I want to do that, so after that many years of doing that you actually can be really good at all those different areas. 


How’d you get into that?

Well I was in corporate America, I was a corporate executive for about 15 years, wearing the bowties, and the cufflinks, and suspenders everyday, and that was great. The jobs that I had were very much creative for me, there was a lot of creativity creating departments for companies, for example, I did that for a couple different companies, and I really appreciated that corporate experience, but I knew that I was a creative person, when people around me were telling me that you need to do something creative, and my father finally said you need to do something creative, and he was the big corporate guy, when he finally said that, I was like now I have permission to go and do that. I literally on Labor Day I had a suit burning party, and I burned all my suits, and I traded them in for work boots, and a tool belt, and a shovel (Laughs), and I’ve been doing that ever since. 

And that was from right out of college? 

Pretty much, yeah, I did a mission experience down in St. Vincent, and that is when I fell in love with the Caribbean, so that’s what brought me back here, and then I went back and right back into corporate and ended that after 15 years. 


Did you go to architecture school at that point? 

No I didn’t go back to school until I was 40. One day I woke up and said I want to be a designer, and it was very scary, and I needed to recognize that okay I won’t have the corporate paycheck anymore, and I won’t have all those corporate benefits, but I’ll have the freedom to go and really follow my passions and that is really what it was. It was beautiful and scary all at once, it really was, and you know how I really started was going to friends and saying let me do this for free so that I can build a portfolio. I literally worked for free or I worked for trade, like hey I need a plane ticket for my nephew’s baptism, I will redo this room, or redo your front yard for a plane ticket. You do kind of crazy things just to get the word out and people seeing my work, and building that portfolio, and then so I can finally get things going. The biggest thing that launched me was I accidentally fell into an interview with HGTV – Home and Garden television, they essentially were like we need to put you on TV, and I became a landscape design expert for Landscape Smart, a show on TV and that, when people started seeing me on TV and what I could do, and got that cult behind me, that gave me a big boost. Then it was kind of going back and forth between outside and inside. Growing up I did a lot of interior work with renovating a cabin and all that kind of stuff, so I really knew a lot and would kind of gravitate towards that more, and then I was like gosh but I really want to do more of the other, and that’s when I decided to go get that degree I needed to be an official landscape architecture, and officially do that as well. So the experience would be home renovation and design, and then education was with that, and I just kind of married them all together. 


So how long have you been here in St. John? 

I’ve been here for just about a month now. 


Have you done any other programs with us in the past?

I have, I was over in St. Thomas for six months last winter, and then went home for the summer to do projects I had lined up for last fall to get installed and implemented over the summer. When that was done I went to Dominica, that was building schools, and that was something that was very different, and I’ve never done before, and I wanted to learn a new skill, and I had friends from St. Thomas down there and they kept kind of pulling at me to come down, and that was one island I had not explored yet, so I went and did that until that program closed and then I went home for Christmas, and Ki was here and I had worked with Ki in St Thomas, and I was like Ki what’s going on down there, I still have a few months to kill and there was 10feet of snow on the ground, and she said come on down! Avoiding the winter. 


What inspired you to come volunteer?

Super easy questions, a little background, every ten years since age 20 I do a sabbatical. So I take a year off of my life and do something unique basically following a passion, or more education, which is generally a passion. I was approaching my 50th which I thought was a really important one, because I wanted an opportunity to look back at the last 50 years, what are the bad things that I don’t want to do for the next 50, and what are the good things that I want to keep. I thought why not do some kind of pilgrimage, so I was going to do the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and take about three months and walk through Spain, and do the pilgrimage, and end up at the cathedral of Saint Paul, and I thought that would be a cool thing for me, because I studied at the Vatican when I was in college, so it was kind of like bookends for my experience in that way, and then the hurricanes came. I was watching a morning news program, and Petra was on and, I’m getting goosebumps right now, and she said we build, she told about her experience, see goose bumps look at that, she told about her experience in the Philippines, and she said we build schools, and I said you know what I need to do that. Instead of just going of and wallowing, and swimming in lake Tim. I need to use the skills I’ve been developing for 25 years or so with building, and go and really do some good. I literally applied the next day and was accepted like two weeks later. 


Do you remember what show that was? 

Fox and friends actually, the morning show. 


 So what keeps you coming back? You came here for 6 months…

And that was only supposed to be 3! I extended, they made me staff about 7 days after I got there. They said you have skills, come on board. Then I said well I’ll stay a little longer just so that transition was easier, and then we were starting to transition from response to recovery and they asked if I could help stay one more month longer to help with that transition into recovery and so it just kind of kept stretching until I said okay guys the snow is melting I’ve really got to go home. 


So you were a response PC, that’s interesting considering your background I would have guessed recovery…

Well there wasn’t even rebuild there, that’s just what I walked into, but it was a phenomenal experience, because it was a different PC position over there. We only had TLs leading sites, so as a PC I was supervising all of those sites, so I could have up to 8-10 sites around the island everyday, so I would have the scope of the project, I’d walk in with them, say this is what we’re going to be doing today, do you have any issues, what do you need to make this happen, I was the person that was responsible for making sure that they had the tools necessary to make that happen. Then they’d say ok I have an electrical issue, so then I would come to that house, I have a plumbing issue, and I’d help them with the plumbing, so that background helped me troubleshoot and figure things out. Some things structures were falling down and I had to go in and rebuild the structure so volunteers could come in, and create a safe space for that work, so that background lent itself to having everything run really smoothly there. Then coming here, ok rebuild, well that’s easy breezy. 


Why’d you choose to go to Dominica? 

That was building schools and I had never done that, and that was my original intent.


Why’d you choose to come back here? 

Well, because I fell in love with St. Thomas and St. John, it’s in my heart, it really is. Any excuse to come back. I was going to go back to St. Thomas, but I was like you know Ki is here, and you can’t really go back sometimes, and I wanted to create new experiences and try something new here. 


Now it’s been over a year since you’ve been on sabbatical? 

I know! (laughs) You’re asking great questions! I joke with my family, they’re like when is this sabbatical ending? Well ,and so, I guess now my challenge is trying to incorporate that, what I learned, and appreciate, and want to keep for the next 50 years, that piece. So how can I incorporate that into my real life back home, I’m trying to figure that out. 


How has your time been here in USVI? The work, the St. John community, and the St. John AHAH community?

All together? Magical! It really has. The fulfillment that I get out of doing this kind of work is beyond anything I’ve ever done work wise. Response, spending six months in response, it was, because, it gave the homeowner hope that there was something else ahead of them. It was that glimmer of hope. Walking away from every site, I just did my 180th muck & gut, and being a part of changing people’s lives, and giving them that hope, and knowing that they can move forward with their life again, is magic, there’s nothing better. 


And outside the work?

Oh man, kind of my favorite part really. People ask well why don’t you go to Florida, or why are you, and I’m like because the people in the Caribbean are special people, and they have a love for others, for where they live, for their home, for their land, and theirs such an ownership and true genuine love for that, that they share with others, and you get that back. Coming down and giving is half of what I get back. Connecting with them and sharing in their lives. Dominica they would bring us to dinner to their homes, and have us meet their kids, and really integrate and learning what it’s like to be an islander. It’s their love, and acceptance, and openness, and you take that home with you. It’s a blessing to be a part of that.  


Have you had any unique discoveries? 

Oh Wow! I think I’m always discovering something new and unique. I’m surprisingly really good in community. As a 51 year old that has lived alone I was like oh I wonder how that is going to work, and I found out that I just love it! I definitely need my alone time, but of course, but I love that piece, and I love connecting with so many incredible like minded people that all, everyone has different objectives for coming here, different motivations for coming here, but we are all here to do the same thing. To give of ourselves to whatever lengths it takes, and to whatever skills we have. To be in a community that everyday pushes to make that happen and do that together and to motivate others to make that happen, is pretty awesome! 


Has this experience changed you in any way? How?

Yeah, I really have. Being a corporate guy, and my upbringing, and all of that, I grew up with a lot. I have learned that so much of that just doesn’t matter. It’s the ability to live with very little has been very good for me. I’ve even noticed, just going home the last few times, how I don’t think in terms of what am I going to get next, just that material piece, and it’s been really freeing, to know that I can be so fulfilled, so content, and so happy, without all of that other stuff. Where I grew up, I grew up in a community that told you that is what you have to have to be happy, and so I know that that has changed the way I’m looking at the next 50 years of my life. It’s not about getting this, or getting there, or doing it, it’s about in what way can I live as simply, and as fulfilled, as possible. That’s been probably the best piece that came out of this 50th sabbatical that still going on. 


It’s interesting how what you have you appreciate in such a different way…

Oh yes. It is, It’s crazy how just the little things that you know that make you happy. I just appreciate that little piece that brings that piece to myself and to my soul. 


Like running water… (Together)“Wooooooah”

Hot water! That’s crazy, just thankful for those little things all the time 


What are you going to take home from this experience and integrate into your own life? 

Probably the biggest piece is being able to be a life example of exactly what we just said to everybody around me. All my friends that live in that world, to see me, and the happiness that I have, and the content that I have, and to show them kind of what it’s all about, and that you don’t need all those crazy things. 


As you clean out your closets and give everything to Goodwill? 

Yeah, Yes, Yes. I hope that I can be a really good example of that. That they can see who I am, and how I live, and how I treat others, that all that stuff isn’t all that important. 


What do you love the most about this experience? 

Giving people hope, it really is. Giving people hope. Doing this house at Lomax, where the homeowner isn’t there, it has been a little challenging, I love going to the homeowner and being with them everyday. Talking to them, sharing with them, and sharing the excitement, and telling them were going to change your world today. Telling them that this is what we’re going to do for you. That was a challenge, but what feels really good is knowing that this woman is going to come home, and her life will be changed off the grid. It’s going to change her life when she walks in, and I know that, and I hold onto that, so I feel good about that. I want to be there for that experience with her, but knowing that is good enough. 


Why should someone volunteer with us who never has before?

A million reasons, but probably the biggest one is to extract yourself from your everyday life, to pull yourself out of that, and give yourself a break, and see it from a different angle. When you look back at your life from USVI, and you see it back there it’s like looking at the Earth from moon you see it in a different way. Like they say, every astronaut that’s come back says seeing the earth from outer space changes their life forever, it’s kind of a microcosm of that. Stepping back, and taking a breathe, and looking at it, and being able to go back and say ok the way I lived and the way that I grew there, how can I bring that home and change my life to more closely represent those values that made me so fulfilled back on program.  


Anything else?

I think that went pretty deep. One of the greatest things when I talk about fulfillment about these programs, I know before I was talking about giving the homeowners hope, and that community piece, but one thing that has also really been fulfilling for me as well, is being able not only to help the homeowner, but to be able to help the other volunteers grow. To show them, that everyday I’m teaching, so not only am I reaching the broader world, but within the community I’m also giving new skill sets to kids that are going home, and now I can paint my own apartment, now I can go and build my Ikea dresser, giving them that kind of confidence, that internal instruction, I’m kind of a teacher at heart, and I think that that ability and opportunity to teach those around me has also been a huge part of that fulfilling piece. To bring all that in and share with each other. To build our own community, while we’re also building the bigger community.

Donate To This Program

Learn more about this program: U.S. Virgin Islands Hurricane Relief

We responded to the call for help with debris removal, mucking and gutting, mold sanitization and minor repairs on homes and schools across the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. sanitation, and school rebuild projects.

Learn More

Learn more about this program: U.S. Virgin Islands Hurricane Relief

We responded to the call for help with debris removal, mucking and gutting, mold sanitization and minor repairs on homes and schools across the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. sanitation, and school rebuild projects.

Learn More
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