Always helpful in times of disaster is one of the reasons thanking the Royal Dutch Marines for their help after the passing of hurricanes Irma and Maria falls into the category of “important” – and taking into consideration the various challenges of the last five years, it is timely as the island reflects on five years of rebuilding efforts.
Veteran educator and former Charlotte Brookson Academy of the Performance Arts (CBA) Director Claudette Forsythe-Labega penned a heartfelt reflection about the help given by who many in the St. Maarten community fondly dubbed the “Green Angels”. Her school at that time, which was housed in the former Government Administration Building, was gutted by Hurricane Irma and then rained on by Maria.
As Foresee Foundation was closely involved with several educational and social relief projects with schools both before and after Irma, Forsythe-Labega contacted the Foundation with the request to assist her in the sharing of her “Thank you” story with the Marines. Her “Thank you” was officially handed over to St. Maarten based Commander of Marines, Arie Noordam, and his colleagues earlier this month.
Forsythe-Labega’s story started the way many St. Maarten residents can relate to: Homeless, despondent and distraught. “I am on my way to Philipsburg to help my school and our children. Determined today, September 21, 2017, days after Hurricane Maria and two weeks after Hurricane Irma to find a solution to avoid the closing of this school.”
At that time, she was determined to start the process of reopening and saving CBA, which in the past had been threatened with closure by authorities who were not in agreement with its alternative and innovative curriculum – determined to keep the doors of this school open for students, who loved their school and were just as distraught by its decimation as she was. In some ways, this is not a unique story as many schools, businesses and persons were living through similar circumstances. But what is unique is the sense of volunteerism that permeated the St. Maarten society in that time of catastrophe.
Forsythe-Labega explained that a chance encounter with some Marines and a request for support paid off: “At the stroke of nine o'clock the next morning, I am informed that the Marines are standing on the doorstep of our destroyed building. I arrive at the building around half past ten and the Marines (nine men strong), some students and teachers are busy emptying our school, which was located on the second floor of the building. The heavier items are carried down by the Marines, while the students and teachers take care of the books and teaching materials.”
Marines, teachers and students worked together to relocate the school’s furniture and teaching supplies. They waded through standing water, braved the sweltering heat, mosquitoes, humidity, mould, fallen and falling debris in the building, to salvage the little inventory that was left. The helpfulness, camaraderie and kindness exhibited by these young men inspired Forsythe-Labega to end her story by thanking the Marines for allowing her, the staff and students a glimpse into the “heart of the navy”.
Foresee Foundation Founder/Director Jose Sommers was touched by Forsythe-Labega’s sincere story and felt the need to contact the Marines, not only for this story, but also for the positive contribution that the Green Angels make in St. Maarten. A few other examples are the clean-up of the now closed zoo and a very generous donation to Safe Haven. Foresee Foundation sees it as fortunate to be the liaison between the Marines and non-profit organizations on the island.
Sommers: “Foresee Foundation was established for educational purposes; to assist schools and help community organizations to become stronger through capacity strengthening initiatives. This was the reason for the creation of NPOwer, one of the programs of the foundation. Collaboration and volunteerism, such as that done by CBA’s management and staff, students and the Marines are excellent examples of how people with different backgrounds, generations and cultures can connect, show appreciation and make a difference.
During their meeting to reflect and exchange the “Thank you” message, Noordam said, “It is important to make positive contact with the people of the kingdom. We operate with orders, and our personnel is ready and willing to help in a disaster situation.” Although he was not here at the time of hurricanes Irma and Maria, he said he is happy the Marines could assist. They plan on continuing to support St. Maarten through volunteer community activities, which will allow them to connect with St. Maarten NPOs and by extension residents of St. Maarten.
He presented a plaque to Forsythe-Labega that reads “Altijd Behulpzaam”, which means “Always Helpful”. For 2023, the Marines in collaboration with Foresee Foundation/NPOwer will plan more community volunteer activities.