Dec. 18, 2018

By Andrea Navarro, Advertising Marketing Communications ’18. All photos by Andrea Navarro except portrait by Jessica Naissant.

This was one of the first things my volunteer group was told upon arriving in Puerto Rico for a two-week service trip in August.

I was part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. From June through August, students from SUNY and CUNY schools could volunteer for two weeks with on-site nonprofits for academic credit, a small stipend, and the satisfaction of knowing we did something to help.

More than a year after Hurricane Maria, the island is still in shambles. Approximately 3,000 people died, and more than 4,000 homes were damaged. Many people lost their jobs, especially those in the fishing industry. Some people in Naguabo, the town where we spent most of our time working, went as long as three months without grid power or safe drinking water.

At times, however, being in Puerto Rico felt better than the statistics made it sound. It could be that the food is wonderful (you haven’t truly lived until you’ve tried shrimp mofongo, made with mashed green plantains and spiced with abundant garlic and salt) or that the beaches are warm and the rainforests lush. Or, more likely, the fact that Puerto Ricans are resilient and generous to a fault.

Case in point: Vanessa, the owner of one of the houses we were working to repair, would offer us lunch most days, despite the cost and effort of feeding more than 15 volunteers. Her home was wrecked, at times without electricity and with a persistent humidity stench that wouldn’t go away. Months after, water would still leak into almost every room of the house on rainy days—basically every day. Our job was to make sure that no more damage could happen. By getting rid of fallen trees and debris, mixing cement for filling holes and repairing cracks, power-washing huge amounts of dirt, and coating the roofs with special paint, we ensured that houses could resist rain and wind.

The physical labor could be exhausting. The sun was so intense I felt my skin scorching, and the rain was so cold it gave me full body shivers. I would remind myself and my group, “Hey, only two more days and we’re done. We can do this.” It was motivating to think this way, but it also made me realize that for us, it was a countdown. For the homeowners whose roofs still leaked and whose power was still unreliable 10 months after the hurricane, it was their reality. They could not simply leave it behind. The thought was sobering, and it motivated me to work even harder.