Most people think of a week in the Virgin Islands as a vacation, but the more than two dozen AFT nurses and health professionals who traveled there last week were on a mission. Their goal: to perform vision and hearing screenings for all the public school students on the islands.
The effort was part of AFT's comprehensive recovery assistance that it has been providing since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the islands last September. The volunteer nurses were hosted by members of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers and the St. Croix Federation of Teachers.
Leigh Anne Marshall, a registered nurse at Backus Hospital in Norwich, Conn., was excited about the "amazing opportunity to come and help students. And the students were just as excited. They were loud and happy and cheerful. It was nice to see that, especially after having such a huge disaster."
"Since the hurricanes, our school nurses have struggled with limited supplies and other support," said Carol Callwood, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers. "Our members and the national AFT leadership view this situation as a national concern. When our students have difficulty hearing or seeing in the classroom, they can't learn."
"We appreciate their efforts in helping us with our students," said Cava Emanuel-Pemberton, a teacher at one of the schools visited by the nurses. "The parents are appreciative too, and it takes a little stress off of them. It's very helpful."
The week of screening was an emotional roller coaster for the AFT members and the children they helped. Although the days were long the stories are endless and unforgettable, such as a little boy who had been held back a grade because of learning difficulties but thanks to this effort, the nurses discovered he couldn't hear and helped him get a hearing aid.
"I can't tell you how many hugs I've had since I've been down here," said Tamie Cline, a nurse who is a member of the Oregon Nurses Association. "The kids come out after our screenings and give us fist-bumps and high-fives. They're just extremely grateful that we're even here."
"I've been a union member for a long time, but when I do things like this, it's such a great feeling," said Jorja Dougherty, a retired nurse and member of the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. "It's a feeling of solidarity, and I'm so glad that I'm a part of the union for that reason."
"It's amazing that the AFT continues to follow the disaster," said Pat Gunther, a school nurse and member of the Cleveland Teachers Union. "We stand up we show up and we're here to help our fellow Americans and our fellow union members."
The project was supported by a number of partners, including the Clinton Global Initiative, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, the Afya Foundation, Airlink, the Seafarers International Union and the Virgin Islands Department of Health.