Matthew Holder is a quiet man, quiet and disarmingly intense. He inspires confidence in those who meet him and is seen by friends and family as a steady pair of hands, a quality that stood him – and the people of Cayman Brac – in good stead in the dark nights and rubble-strewn days after Hurricane Paloma.
The 37-year-old Barbadian lost his customary cool recently though when he was made Volunteer of the Year by the Cayman Islands Red Cross on 16 January.
“For about 20 seconds I couldn’t take it in,” he said of the unexpected announcement sprung on him at the Volunteers’ Appreciation dinner, the charity hosted for its 200-plus volunteers.
“The place erupted, people were chanting my name and reaching over to clap me on the back, I couldn’t take it in,” he recalls.
He cannot remember quite how he made it to the podium to accept the award from last year’s recipient Lydia Gibson. “They were shouting out “speech, speech”. I said I was speechless.’” As soon as he had recovered his legendary composure, he gave a brief acceptance speech.
The photo fit volunteer?
He may not fit most people’s idea of your average volunteer of a whey faced do-gooder with plenty of time on their hands.
He is an ordinary Joe – someone who works a regular job and likes the quiet satisfaction of making their community a friendlier, more compassionate place.
The regular blue-collar guy who says he has “done nothing special” has made an appreciable difference to the work of the Cayman Islands Red Cross.
Most days he attracts little notice. In fact, you would probably pass him in the supermarket aisle without a second glance.
What makes him special is what is on the inside. His path into volunteerism was strongly influenced by his mother Jean, who he describes as “a real Christian lady”.
Deputy director the Red Cross, Carolina Ferreira explains why Holder deserved the award. “[He] is the fourth recipient of the Volunteer of the Year award and by no means was this an easy feat. John Bogle, the first recipient and winner of the 2006 Award, set incredibly high criteria for the winner, which was equally matched by [subsequent recipients]…
“The VOTY award is given to the volunteer who has gone above and beyond in his contribution to the Red Cross. All four winners have been extremely active in at least three of the four programmes; have received all the major training that the organisation offers.”
She said that all four winners had been awarded the honour via a unanimous vote by the programme managers and the director.
Ferrera said: “Like his predecessors, Matthew is a leader within the organisation, taking the initiative to make suggestions on how to improve current services, proposing new ventures, and spearheading projects that require constant attention and care (such as the maintenance of the containers).
“He is a great team player, who nurtures and encourages others to become more involved and creates opportunities for them to grow and develop within the CIRC.
“He is selfless – following the passing of Hurricane Paloma, he changed his plans so that he could stay and assist the efforts in Cayman Brac.”
Away from work and volunteering, the keen photographer enjoys shooting sunsets and sunrises, plays defensive back for a local church team and works out on the beach.
A muscular approach
His first stint volunteering was just after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Inspired by the reports of the relief work done by church friends in neighbouring Grenada, he lost little time in volunteering there for a few days at a time. During his frequent visits there he, his wife, Sheron and their friends would distribute clothing and food in neighbourhoods like Subice and St. Patricks.
Holder also helped clear debris and repair homes devastated by the killer hurricane.
“I believe in action and putting my shoulder to the wheel to keep the relief wheel turning,” says the soft spoken plumber’s mate.
He “loves the whole idea of physical work and relieving people, seeing the joy in their faces after having been in such low spirits”.
Holder moved from St. Joseph’s on the east coast to Cayman in late 2007 leaving daughter, Myeisha, 3, and his three-month-old son, Isaiah, with his wife.
The day fate stepped in
Settled in his new job, in his new home, five months later, Holder decided to look up the Cayman Islands Red Cross. He had taken a First Aid and CPR course with the Barbados Red Cross before leaving and wanted to do “something worthwhile” in his off work hours.
As luck would have it, on the day he made that decision, fate stepped in. “I picked up an elderly lady on the roadside, who was waiting for bus. I don’t make a habit of giving lifts to strangers but I thought if my mother was out there in the sun waiting, I’d want someone to offer her a lift,” he said.
The pair got talking; he asked her where the Red Cross was and Beverley McKenzie said she was a Red Cross volunteer and could take him there.
Staff there, encouraged by his skill set (plumbing, gardening, painting and decorating), immediately had him fixing leaks in the Red Cross building, a problem that was costing the charity a small fortune. The resolution of this and other urgent jobs around the building meant that he soon became a valued volunteer.
The Red Cross family
The sense of gratitude was by no means one way. “The Red Cross is like my Cayman family really,” he freely admits. “I’m there whatever the weather during my morning break, at lunchtime and after work to see what needs doing.”
What needs doing most days is doing the pick-ups from donors the length and breadth of Grand Cayman. Clothing, books, and all kinds of household goods are delivered to the Red Cross by him in the charity’s distinctive white and red van.
He also volunteers as a driver and First Aider for the many football matches and road races at which the Red Cross has a presence at weekends.
Brac after Paloma
One Sunday, this steady routine was shattered by an urgent message from the Red Cross disaster manager. “Paloma had wrecked the Brac. He’d been trying to get hold of me since Saturday to get me out there with other volunteers to start the relief effort,” Holder said. “I felt bad about having not been in a position to respond in the first instance,” he said.
Not one to dwell on what he cannot control, he rushed to the airport to help load supplies on the plane that he was to miss.
Brac-bound the next day, Holder went for a week with the blessing of his former employer Alan Roffey of Andro Group, who made sure the Barbadian was given a full week’s pay while in the Brac. “It was his contribution to the relief effort,” Holden explained.
Looking down on the Sister Island from the plane with just minutes to touchdown, he remembers being amazed by what he saw. “It was like a bomb site,” he recalls. “The pilot circled the island so that we could all get a good look at it.”
What greeted him on the ground was far worse than the aerial montage had prepared him for. “It was more real. There among the people I could feel the urgency, the mood was agitated as people were struggling to regain their composure without their home comforts.”
The good Samaritan
He swapped contact details with a woman from Grand Cayman’s Health Services. “I told her that if she found anything for me she should call me, and that I’d do the same with her.”
John Bogle met him at the airport and they went straight out into the field. Grand Cayman’s small team worked alongside the Brac’s Red Cross.
“Our main priority was to do a head count, take down the contact details for each head of household and assess their immediate and longer term needs, so that we could return with supplies,” Holder said.
It was not long before the Health Services worker rang him about a lady whose roof had blown off close to the airport. “He was eventually able to get to her and put tarps up. I finished at around 7pm in the pitch dark,” he said.
The Red Cross team of around 15 were billeted at the Aston Rutty Centre, which, as well as housing the island’s homeless, was a makeshift hospital. The days were long and hard: “We were up, had breakfast and were on the road by 8am each morning,” he recalls. “It was extremely exhausting, but very satisfying.”
They cleared roads, cut down obstructing trees, put tarps on homes, gave out food, sanitary materials and clothing. “We went wherever we were needed. We were constantly getting calls on the handsets and the Red Cross phone… The Brackers were very grateful for any help they got and that gave us the energy to plough on,” he says.
One memory of that first trip still haunts him. “There was an old lady that would leave the shelter early each day and would go and sit on the foundations of her former home,” he said recalling the women they’d see each day on their trips around the island.
“That was all that was left. We’d see her surrounded by rubble, strips of half-buried clothes and furniture. Even though she looked lonely and vulnerable there was a quiet kind of dignity about her,” he said.
She too was one of the hundreds the team was able to help even it was just to clean up the site for her.
Holder did another tour of duty with the Red Cross a couple of weeks before Christmas 2008. His permit was up and he could have gone back to Barbados but opted return to the Brac “to finish up what we’d started”.
His advice to anyone who is thinking about volunteering but whose life is busy? “Busy people get the most things done.”
“My volunteer work, my approach to everything I do is driven by my personal motto: “It’s better to be a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block through life.”
To find out more about being a Red Cross volunteer, call 949-6785.