Humanitarian Mission to Puerto Rico, My life Changing Christmas gift!
A letter from Teresa Santiago, Comité Noviembre
As I boarded the plane at JFK to Puerto Rico with my fellow Estoy Con Puerto Rico partners and volunteers, which included members of Comité Noviembre, Catholic Charities, the National Association of State Latino Chamber of Commerce, the New York State Coalition Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and community leaders, I hoped that our 8 day humanitarian mission would bring some hope and joy during this Christans season to the scheduled 10 towns we were going to visit. What we encountered was life changing for me and many others.
In every town that we visited from Aibonito, Baranquitas, Comerio and Naranjito in the mountains to Loiza and Maunabo by the ocean and Arecibo, Manati, Cayey, Caguas and San Juan inland we found profund issues that have not been addressed for over 90 days. From no electricity, some since hurricane Irma, no clean drinking water, down power lines in the middle of the road and broken roads to people that lost everything, their home, belongings, jobs, to children not going to school because its gone, the situation is dire.
But what was amazing was the resilience, faith and pure acts of kindness and love of every single person we met. Strangers helping strangers, neighbors taking in neighbors, people working together to rebuild their country without the help from any government entity because three months after the hurricane these people are tired of waiting for government assistance to arrive.
Our effort delivered over 2,500 bags of groceries, 200 per town to families. With the help from volunteers from the Hunger Corp. de Puerto Rico, a volunteer service oriented organization and National Coast Guard volunteers we were able to sort, bag and load these bags of norishment that we estimate would feed 15,000 to 20,000 people.
In Aibonito was our first stop, we visited Casa Aibonito, an elderly residence with over 99 apartments operating on a back-up generator and serving over 200 seniors daily. The residence provides daily meals, health services, a 24-hour nurse on call and recreational acitivities. As our team arrived led a group of muscians in parranda style, Puerto Rico’s version of caroling on steroids, the place immediately transformed into a Christmas celebration. As we gave out polvorones, (christmas cookies), danced, sang and shared a moment with our new friends it was clear we were bringing joy to people that already believe they are alone.
As I gave out the bags of food, I was overcome by how grateful our friends were. They blessed us, kissed us, hugged us, cried tears of gratitude for the humble gesture we were providing and these actions were repeated thorughout our mission.
Pumped with the reception we received at Casa Aibonito we traveled to Barranquitas a neighboring town to continue. We were met by the National Guard and representatives from Mayor Francisco López López’s office that escorted us to a section of Barranquitas that has been cut off because of road damage. They have no electricity or water and because of the extensive road damage utility workers will not be able to get to them until roads are cleared and passable. Here we went door to door giving out food, water and toys to the children of the area, we stopped cars and gave them food. This was grueling work walking up a steep mountain hills with broken roads to get to each home. Everyone was extremely grateful and truly touched that their area had been remembered. In the areas where we physically could not enter the National Guard delivered the aid to those families.
The next day, we loaded the bus with aid to Arecibo and Manati. In Arecibo we visited the area of Sector Carrera in Bajadero which was badly damaged by Maria. Residents met us at La Cancha de Carrera, the community basketball court, because our bus could not get through the damage and debris. As the residents saw the bus coming through their area they followed it to the “cancha.” We delivered food, water and toys to about 80 families living in this extremely damaged community and we were met with the same enthusiasm, love and gratitude as before. The most significant revelation in this area was the fact explained by a communtiy leader that this area of Arecibo is not expected to have electricity for the next 2 years. But the community assured us that they are strong and would survive. They implored us to continue our help to them and to assist them with long term solutions with the electricity issue, perhaps by sending generators and water purification systems.
An additional 40 bags of food as well as toys were given to Rev. Aida Rosa who was traveling with us for Iglesia Cristina in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The church’s pastor picked up the donation in Arecibo.
In Manati we visited the Manati Plaza Apartments which is a section 8 public housing facility with 100 units for low income families. We parked the coach bus outside the facility and distributed 168 bags of food to the residents and 84 toys to the chldren of the complex. The Mayor José Sánchez González assisted with the distribution of the bags as we sang and danced to the parranda created in the middle of the sidewalk.
As we were driving away we saw a father with his 3 young children ranging from 4 to 8 years old, getting to the complex and being turned away even though we had left enough food for an additional 30 families. One of the children began to run behind the bus calling out for us to stop and we did. At first I thought he would ask for a toy since he knew we were distributing toys but as we openned the door and he caught his breath crying he told us to please give him the food we were giving out for his father and brothers. The impact of that moment, of that plea broke my heart and for the first time I saw the desperation in the eyes of an 8 year old child. As we walked back to give the bags of food to the father he did not want to accept it. He felt ashamed that he could not provide for his children and that he had initially been turned away. At our continued insistence to take the aid he broke down, he covered his eyes and wept. We consoled him through our own tears and told him things would get better. He thanked us and told us it would be the first time his family would have enough to eat in months.
As I sat back on the bus the realization of the meaning of this trip was becoming more and more evident. We were encountering stories of human suffering that needed to be told.
As we began our trip back to the hotel we abruptly stopped. There was no more road, just an embankment that went straight down. Our bus driver Carlos was excellent. He slowly and carefully drove in reverse until he was able to make the u-turn. During this time there was total silence on that bus just quiet prayers once we were out of danger the bus exploded in cheers and song. I just thanked God it was still daylight and Carlos was able to see the end of the road because there were no signs warning of the danger ahead.
When we arrived at the hotel we continued with the sorting and packing for our next day’s visit to Comerio and my hometown Naranjito. My uncle Luis Santiago better known as Tingy met us in Comerio which is the neighboring town of Naranjito. It was wonderful to see him. Also we had the great priviledge of having Yolandita Monge one of Puerto Rico’s treasured celebrities with us during this trip
As we waited for the police escort from Comerio we realized that something was not right. The Mayor’s wife Ramona Nieves arrived first and greeted us then the Mayor of Comerio Josian Santiago which looked visibly shaken, welcomed us. He spoke to us of the devastation of the town. How 80% of his resdents are homeless, lost their homes or homes are unreparable; that they have no electricity, no cellular service that they are completed disconnected from the grid. That the promised aid has not been received and that he was on his way to San Juan to speak to the Governor about his town and to try to get answers for his constiguents. Then he was visibly emotional explaining why he was late. A man had committed suicide in the town plaza in front of the City Hall. He expressed the need for mental health professionals to deal with the long term affect this will have on the people of Puerto Rico. He left us with a call to action that the elief effort now need to be turned into a rebuilding effort as well as short and long term solutions to immediate problems like no electricity.
We visited the Villa Brava Arriba section of Comerio, where residents of the area were already lined up waiting for us. We continued with our parranda and brought just a little bit of joy and laughter to people that have been deeply affected. Yolandita Monge was the star of the day hugging, dancing and distributing food. She joined us until the end of the mission.
In Naranjito, I felt blessed that I was able to see my family. My uncle was instrumental in planning this event and I thanked him publically and he beamed with pride. After distributing cookies, cupcakes, toys and 250 bags of food at the Iglesia Defensora de la Fe; of the Sector Lomas Jaguas region of Naranjito. I took a short ride up this steep mountain, my family’s mountain, to my 99 year-old grandmother’s house. She didn’t recognize me at first since they did not tell her I was coming. But after looking into my eyes for a little bit she said you are Teresita la hija de William, (William’s daughter). I am proud that after the storm my family was able to provide water to the area of Lomas Jaguas from the waterfall on their property and that the Santiago clan 30 strong cleared debris, fed their neighbors because they had generators and made sure their community was safe. I am proud and honored to come from these humble, resilient and loving people.
In Cayey we distributed assistance to Centro Comunal of Barrio Las Vegas de Cayey to over 100 families from the Parish of La Merced’s Society of Saint Vincent de Paul. In Caguas we squeezed into a small corridor of Galeria Urbana, Residential Apartments for families and the elderly where another hundred families received our assistance and the full force of our parranda style arrival.
Then it was off to Hospital del Niños in San Juan to distribute toys, cookies and greatly needed pillows, bed sheets, pillow cases, and towels for the 35 children presently in long term care at the hospital. Monsignor Sullivan met us at the hospital and helped us along with the Three Kings distribute the gifts. We were not allowed to take photos but the images that that I saw and experienced will be with me for a lifetime. Children with head injuries, with severe developmental issues, in wheel chairs responding to our music and singing, moving their arms and legs and trying to sign along with us. It was amazing to see how the power of music can truly make a difference. It was great seeing Msgr. dancing and interacting with the children. We ended a very moving day with a special blessing from Msgr.
The next day as we traveled to the Sector Richard of Loíza one of the poorest areas of Puerto Rico, we saw how forgotten this area truly is. There were utility poles and cables all over the road and we became victims of that neglect. Our bus became entangled in low hanging electrical cables that were not visible to our driver as the bus moved forward the spikes on the ground propelled onto the windshield of the bus cracking it badly but not coming through the window. It was a heart stopping moment and once again our driver’s quick thinking saved us from a more serious situation. It was amazing how people stopped in their tracks and ran to help us.
When we arrived in the Sector Richard region of Loíza just steps from the ocean, I understood the devastation. Families in this region lost everything. Many are sleeping in wet mattresses in roofless shells of what was once their home. They do not have electricity or clean water to drink but as we pulled into the area children ran from all over to meet our bus. Some with no shoes or barely dressed and other’s in their Sunday best. Again the smiles and happiness warmed my heart. We danced and sang with the residents of Sector Richard all with wonderful smiles and words of appreciation and gratitude for remembering them. The damage is overwhelming in Loiza but the spirit of the people is incredible. There is a resilience that is truly powerful.
We lunched at Casa Amor, Fe y Esperanza’s Mesón del Amor, one of the non-profit Estoy Con Puerto Rico made a contribution. It provides free meals to students of the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras Campus that do not have the financial means to have enough to eat. El Mesón del Amor provides a safe haven to young people that are trying to better their future by attending college and receiving an education. After that we visited Centro Ararat in Santurce, a private non-profit organization of primary health care services to distribute food to 25 clients with various health issues including HIV/Aids.
In the evening a special Mass was offered by Archbishop of Puerto Rico Roberto Gonzalez, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of NY and Fr. Enrique Camacho, Director of Caritas de Puerto Rico at La Catedral de San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan in honor of Estoy Con Puerto Rico’s and Comité Novimbre’s humanitarian effort.
Our last trip of this humanitarian effort was to Maunabo the town by which Hurricane Maria entered the island. I have never visited Maunabo and was struck by its beauty, nestled in the middle where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. As we reached the town we saw metal electrical poles bent almost all in a perfect line confirming the tremendous wind force of Hurricane Maria. We arrived at the Primera Iglesia Pentecostal de Maunabo, the oldest Pentecostal church in the area to distribute food to 75 families of the community. The story was the same no electricity and no clear date for its return but the Pastor of this church was not waiting for answers. He has mobilized other Pastors in the area to come up with a solution. So after a resounding passion filled blessing he excused himself to meet with his fellow colleagues to discuss next steps for recovery.
Through this mission several things were clear. The situation in Puerto Rico is changing from a relief to a rebuilding effort. And that the people of Puerto Rico need the voice of all Americans to assist Puerto Rico in its recovery and receiving the Federal dollars needed to rebuild.
A second mission is being discussed to return in February to work with Caritas of Puerto Rico and Catholic Charities to provide assistance in case management and mental health and suicide prevention services. Work with and fund volunteer groups like Hunger Corp. to begin the rebuilding process. Create business opportunities for businesses in PR. Lobby Washington for more aid to Puerto Rico. Msgr. Sullivan will be joining Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez and other and national religious groups today Wednesday December 20th in Washington, DC for a prayer vigil in Congress’ Cannon House Office Building, as Congress considers recovery and relief packages for Puerto Rico.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens by birth. Our contributions to this country make up the very fabric of this nation. We are not second class citizens! You and I have the power to hold Washington accountable; we have the power to affect change. AND WE MUST TAKE IT!
Many of us have been experiencing a myriad of emotions, every time we see the images or hear reports on Puerto Rico, ranging from sadness, to disbelief, to anger. I now can give testimony to the reality that I witnessed. It is time to channel those emotions into action. We must hold our leaders accountable for their lack of action, callous behavior and total inhumane treatment of American citizens.
Please help us to continue to raise money to help rebuild Puerto Rico. To donate to Estoy Con Puerto by check: Make check 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. To donate online, visit: http://catholiccharitiesny.org/donate. Go to Support Disaster Relief Efforts, enter “Estoy con Puerto Rico” in the text box and then proceed with your donation.