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“Don’t Forget Us!”

Posted on May 23, 2018 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Firsthand Look at Puerto Rico 9 Months After the Storm

By Teresa A. Santiago
Catholic Charities Spokesperson and
Estoy Con Puerto Rico Board Member

Last week, as I walked through Puerto Rico’s Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, I didn’t feel the usual energy of excitement in the air.  I was struck by the lack of family members waiting for their loved ones, of children running into abuela’s arms and of hearing people asking for la bendición, a phenomenon I have always found fascinating that no matter how old you are asking for a blessing is such an inherent tradition.  And for a moment I felt a profound sadness. 

Where Are the Children?

What I did see were determined people working hard getting things done and most of them were women and older people. And in the back of my mind I registered the question: Where are the young people? 

I also met the vivacious, comical, happy, Lily who ended up being my cab driver for the days I was in PR.  She told me about her 3 daughters and her husband, how they are all working almost round the clock to make ends meet; about how her family shares what little they have with neighbors that have so much less.  And how she knows to the core of her being that God will provide for her and her loved ones.  Yet every time I went to pay her and gave her a little more she would tell me “that’s not the fare; you gave me too much.” She is only one story of this humble resilience of the people of Puerto Rico.  

I was in Puerto Rico representing the Estoy Con Puerto Rico (I am with Puerto Rico) effort and along with Angel Santini Palos the president of Comité Noviembre presented a symbolic $10,000 check to Fundación Agenda Ciudadana, (Citizens Agenda Foundation), (FAC) in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and visited several of the non-profit organizations that have received donations from ESTOY.

Catholic Charities of New York is serving as a conduit for donations to Estoy con Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico relief and recovery efforts.

Building Solar Energy to Hardest Hit Neighborhoods

FAC received the contribution in early March and to date has created two unique solar energy programs to help the town of Humacao located in the eastern coast of the island where Hurricane Maria landed with all its fury and left massive and crippling devastation.  Humacao as well as its neighboring towns Yabucoa, Naguabo, Las Piedras and Vieques , as of today, still do not have electricity or in very limited areas.

Luis Alberto Ferré Rangel, FAC’s chairmen and editor-in-chief of El Nuevo Día, and Elena Martinez Torres, FAC’s Deputy Director of Programs, explained that the funds were used to create a solar library on the campus of the University of Puerto Rico Humacao (UPRH). It is currently serving the surrounding school districts’ teachers and students so they can give and receive assignments, work on computers to complete their assignments and have access to energy to power their personal computers, tablets, cell phones and any other devices that will assist them with their educational advancement. 

Hurricane Repercussions Take Toll on a Generation of Children

This project is proving crucial to students at all levels of education from elementary and middle school to high school and college.  It has become more impactful after the announcement earlier this month by Puerto Rico’s Department of Education to close 280 of about 1,100 public schools on the island this summer, citing low enrollment. This is in additional to the 179 schools closed earlier this year.  Humacao is one of the towns slated to close its elementary school. Its children will be transferred to schools miles from where they live.  With the current social economic situation that Hurricane Maria created coupled with the fiscal crisis, many education experts and advocates believe that these actions will create one of the greatest educational gaps in the history of Puerto Rico that will affect the advancement of Puerto Rican children for generations to come.

Creating Energy Oasis for Towns Still Stuck in Energy Desert

The second project will create a central energy “oasis” that will serve the  towns of Humacao, Yabucoa, Maunabo, Las Piedras, and Naguabo that have been identified as having no electricity nor the hope of having it in the next few months.  This project, in partnership with FAC, UPRH and the National Institute of Energy and Sustainability, Isleña, will be incubated and housed at UPRH.  Isleña will assume responsibility for ensuring that resources are used to enable and operate this “oasis”. 

The project will train the community to use it to provide energy and self-manage the “oasis”.  Professors from Arizona State University will train students, teachers and community leaders on capacity building, sustainable energy and other topics that will guarantee the empowerment of the community.  The goal of this project is to create long-term solar energy solutions that are owned and operated by the community and serve as a model for the rest of the island.  It is important to point out that these innovative ideas and projects are all being done through private partnership and contributions raised with no government funds or engagement. 

Mom and Pop Stores,  Once Backbone of Local Towns Economy, Now Devastated

Hurricane Maria left the business community of Puerto Rico, especially the “mom and pop” stores that, for generations, had been the backbone of the local economy and lifeline for town plazas, totally devastated.  ESTOY, through its business partners knew that in order to boost the economy it needed to support these businesses.  ESTOY awarded the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, (PRCC) and the Centro Unido de Detallistas (CUD) – the United Center of Retailers, both non-profit organizations, $15,000 each to assist in getting small businesses in towns up and running. 

So after meeting with FAC, I spoke with Alicia Lamboy, Esq., PRCC’s president, and attorney at Goldman Antonetti & Córdova, LLC to get an update on how the contribution was distibuted.  Alicia reported that 23 small business complied with the conditions to qualify for and receive the grant which was based on need.  These businesses, located in the municipalities of Guaynabo, Mayaguez, Añasco, Comerío, Cidra, San Juan (2), Caguas, San Lorenzo, Humacao, Orocovis (4), Arecibo, Aguada, Morovis, Guayama, Naguabo, Cayey, Villalba, San Sebastián and Utuado, each received a check for $652 which was awarded in April at the Condado Plaza Hilton.  These grants were used to buy equipment like generators, refrigerators, air conditioners, stoves and a myriad of supplies. 

The Healing Brigade

The following day, I visited and toured the main offices of Iniciativa Comunitaria, Inc., (ICI), a non-profit organization that provides holistic services related to HIV/AIDS prevention, education and treatment, homeless services and young people exposed to street violence and school dropouts.  ICI has become a place of opportunities for health services, rehabilitation and quality-of-life improvements for thousands of people who by prejudice and ignorance have been shut out of traditional health services; a community that was severely ignored before Hurricane Maria and feared they would be totally forgotten.  With the $5,000 ESTOY donation given in December of 2017, ICI was able to purchase food and deliver directly to the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS on the street.

I am proud that the ESTOY contribution was one of the very first that was received by the organization.  It also served as a catalyst for more.  ICI also received a major donation from the Unidos Por Puerto Rico/United for Puerto Rico that enabled them to purchase 2 mobile health units with funds to hire two drivers until the end of June.  They just lost their agency doctor and count heavily on volunteers. 

Alex Serrano Lebrón, ICI’s Director of Community Relations, challenged me with a requests to identify people, specifically health care professionals, (doctors, physician’s assistance, medical students, nurses, counselors, case managers, etc.) to give of their time, energy and funds and go and volunteer for ICI programs throughout Puerto Rico .  He is calling this effort: “The Healing Brigade”

man eating food

Basketball Court Serves as Community Kitchen

When I arrived back at the hotel full of hope and humbled by the gratitude and appreciation expressed by both FAC and ICI  I sat down at the Embassy Suites’ el patio restaurant in the middle of the hotel, ordered my favorite dish there, garlic shrimp and tostones and dialed Lorel Cubano, Executive Director of the Old San Juan Heritage Foundation, LLC, a resident and member of La Junta Comunitaria de La Perla, (Community Board of La Perla) for our conference call to get an update on the status of the rebuilding of La Perla and how the $5000 that ESTOY provided was used. 

Working with the members of La Junta, which is composed of resident leaders, the area and its needs were assessed.  The ESTOY contribution was used to set up a community kitchen on the basketball court to insure that all residents had home cooked meals, water and a place to meet and get community updates and information.  The community kitchen became the hub, the headquarters for La Perla residents.   The funds were used to purchase food, water and batteries, gasoline for generators, gifts for children during the island’s sacred Three Kings Celebration and solar operated lamps.

Homes Still without Roofs and Hurricane Season Starts Again Next Week

Lorel also told me about all of the assistance that La Perla has received from private entities but mostly from the Puerto Rican diaspora.  They have received generators, solar energy panels, and materials for repairing and replacing roofs.  Now the issue is that they do not have the manpower to do the work.  She expressed concerned that the new hurricane season is right around the corner on June 1st and that there were 5 homes owned by elderly residents that still don’t have roofs. 

As she was expressing her concerns, I put her on hold to take an incoming call from Angel Santini Palos, CN’s president informing me that he was meeting with the architect that is working on several projects in PR and wanted to know if I knew of any areas that needed help with roof repairs, installation and other construction issues.    

For about 5 seconds, I could not speak and I had goose bumps throughout my body.  Angel and I connected Lorel with the good Samaritan architect and the homes are scheduled to receive new roofs in the next week or so. 

Back-to-Back Miracles

And it gets better!  Angel also called to inform me that a non-profit organization that deals with health and mental health issues as well as elderly programs also needs manpower to help with the reconstruction of many elderly homes.  As we are discussing this situation, I now put Angel on hold to answer a call from my uncle, Luis in Naranjito, who has been helping me identify non-profit and religious organizations in towns that still do not have electricity. 

“Bendición Tio, how is it going?”

He answers. “Dios te bendiga Tere. Mira mi hija, I have a group of men from our area, Orocovis, Comerio, the mountain towns that really need to work.  Most of them are a little older but they are reliable, professional and have worked in construction.  Through your work here, do you know of any place they can go to find work?  They will go anywhere on the island!” At that point I almost choked on the last bite of my garlic shrimp.  I conferenced in Angel and they made plans to meet with his contact.

To say that my trip to Puerto Rico was productive is truly an understatement.  I believe that there are no coincidences in life, that there is a divine plan that is in motion. When moments like the ones I experienced happen, when everything falls into place so perfectly, so pure, there is absolutely no questions that it is God.

Throughout my trip I was embraced by waves of gratitude that touched me to the core.  But I was also charged by those same people, Lily, Elena, Luis Alberto, Lorel, Alex, Luis, and many others, with an important mission, responsibility and call to action: DO NOT FORGET US! There is still so much to do!

Please help us continue to help rebuild Puerto Rico. Donate to Estoy Con Puerto through its fiscal conduit, Catholic Charities.

  • Make your checks payable to: Catholic Charities/Estoy Con Puerto Rico and mail to: Catholic Charities/Estoy Con Puerto Rico, 1011 First Avenue, 11th floor, New York, NY 10022.

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