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First Person: Crafting a new life after a devastating hurricane

44-year-old Vanessa Winston lives in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, where she runs a small-scale business primarily making bespoke, hand-made fashion accessories. She is also President of the UN-supported Dominica Arts & Craft Producers Association, which helps its members to promote their products. 

Hurricane Maria destroyed her home and the workshop where she produced all of her products. Despite this setback, she has bounced back and today is an inspirational example for other Dominican entrepreneurs, even attending the first Commonwealth Fashion Exchange initiative at Buckingham Palace in London.

In early April, Ms. Winston sat down with UN News to look back at the dark days that followed Hurricane Maria, and explain how she has managed to bounce back.

Salybia, Dominica, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Salybia, Dominica, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria

“Back in 2017 life was looking good. I had just returned from a trade show in Barbados with two other members of the association. I was excited to come home and take my business to the next level. I had my workshop, and a small but comfortable home with my children.

But Hurricane Maria had other plans.

On the day it hit, we assumed that the roof would be blow off by the storm, but that we would be safe downstairs, in the workshop part of the house. So, we carried what we could, covered the rest in plastic, and headed down at around 6 PM. 

The ground floor ceiling was made of wood, so we could feel the wind and rain, and the door kept threatening to burst open, or split in two. We heard the fridge and the stove upstairs crashing to the floor, and the ceiling begin to rise up. That’s when my older daughter became hysterical.

I bundled all of my daughters under the stairs, and everyone was crying as the water poured and the winds howled around us. The house was destroyed, but the stairwell saved us. 

After the storm, there were more challenging days ahead. When we looked outside, and saw the state of the mountains, everything was black [the storm transformed the countryside, removing much of the lush green foliage and trees]. Even the surface of the road had been lifted by the winds. I was left with four children and nowhere to stay, but I just had to give thanks that we were still alive.

Right away, the community came together, along with aid agencies like the Red Cross, and the UN. We received cash assistance, which I used for food. However, without a home it was too challenging for my daughters, so I sent them to live for a while with my cousin in Barbados. 

Dominica in 2024 shows few traces of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria
UN News/ Brianna Rowe

Dominica in 2024 shows few traces of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria

In the meantime I, and the members of the Dominica Arts and Crafts Producers Association, decided to focus on how to bring the forest back to life. Our industry depends heavily on the forest, because most of our products are made from raw materials that grow there, such as coconuts and the different reeds we use to make baskets and jewellery.

But after Maria, we saw that many of the plants and trees were destroyed, so we couldn’t find the raw materials. We sought out the seeds we needed, and we all went out to plant them in the forest. We also taught our members how to get involved in the beekeeping industry, using local wood to build beehives, because the wax from the hives is very important for polishing our furniture products.

When the UN offers business training I always sign up, because they help me to develop my skills as an entrepreneur, and network with other small business owners. This is the kind of support that really helped me to get on my feet and become a success, which means improving myself, helping my members, and providing for my family”.

Vanessa Winston is a member of the Dominica Arts & Crafts Producers Association
UN News/ Brianna Rowe

Vanessa Winston is a member of the Dominica Arts & Crafts Producers Association

Rebuilding Dominica

The United Nations has helped Dominicans to recover from Hurricane Maria, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which put a huge strain on the country’s economy.

  • Following the hurricane, Vanessa Winston received money from the Joint Emergency Cash Transfer Programme (Government of Dominica, World Food Programme, and UNICEF). During the pandemic, she also benefited from the Covid-19 Social Cash Transfer Programme (Government of Dominica & WFP)
  • The Dominica Arts & Crafts Producers Association is receiving funding from the Green Environment Fund’s Small Grants Program, a UN Development Programme initiative, to finance its reforestation projects and beehive construction.

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