On September 5, 2017, Hurricane Irma hit the island of Puerto Rico followed by Hurricane Maria on September 20, which happens to be my birthday. When the hurricanes hit, power on the entire island was lost but the damage to the middle, mountainous region was hit hardest. Extensive damage was also done to the majority of the buildings on the island. This was especially heartbreaking for me as my grandmother was living on the island during this time with stage 4 metastasized breast cancer. Because of my very unique connection, I felt like I couldn’t just sit back and not take a stand for the land of my beautiful heritage.
My first step of lending a hand was hosting a fundraiser, I Skate for Puerto Rico, which, combined with contributions that were garnered from TV coverage, raised $5,000 for medical supplies for the hospitals on the island. All of that money went to a locally run organization called Brother’s Brother Foundation. Brother’s Brother had been working alongside the Pittsburgh Pirates to gather food, water, baby supplies, toiletries, clothing, etc. to ship to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Knowing that I was sending supplies with the money I had raised was a very rewarding feeling and made me eager to get my own boots on the ground and see the work that needed to be done firsthand.
That was when I took my first service trip to the island in August 2018. I visited the hospitals that I had shipped the medical supplies to, and was there for the opening of the shipment I sent. It even had my name on it. It was horrific to see the hospitals operating strictly out of their emergency room because the other parts of the hospital had to be closed due to a lack of electricity. We visited Hospital Ryder which had just opened one completely renovated floor of a five-story hospital. The remainder of the hospital was unusable as it still had floors without windows and the top floor had immense water damage because the roof had been taken off in the storm.
We also visited two of the schools we sponsored by providing funding to repair the buildings, replace computers, restock libraries, remodel a gymnasium, and purchase new sports equipment. On our visit to República de Costa Rica Vocational High School we saw interior and exterior building damage that was concerning. It amazed me, as a student, how other students could learn in that kind of environment. On this particular day, I witnessed students carrying chairs with them from one classroom to another because most of the school's chairs had been lost in the storm. When I returned home from my service trip, I had every intention on going back and I was able to do just that.
On January 17, 2019, I returned to Puerto Rico and the two schools and hospital I visited during my first trip, and was pleased to see a new clinic added to the medical facility. The second school, Agustin Stahl High School, had finished rebuilding their gym area that we had worked on during my last service trip and we were able to see the children playing around in the space. It was incredible to see the amazing before and after of this school and see how the work that we were able to do there really had a strong impact on the students of the school. A few days later, we traveled to the town of Jayuya (hi-you-yuh) where we saw the only Community Diagnostic and Treatment Center (CDT) within the city limits. These are the “hospitals” that serve the rural and mountain communities because in many areas the best and closest hospitals are an hour or more away. Because people rely on these places, there is a need for them to have reliable, constant electricity. This particular CDT was without electricity for 10 months and had frequent power outages afterwards. This resulted in with the CDT having to turn people away who needed their help. Brother’s Brother decided to put solar panels on the rooftop of the “hospital,” installing a power conversion system inside making it the first and, as of right now, only hospital on the island with solar panels. There was a huge ceremony at the CDT for us when we arrived, and a representative from the mayor of Jayuya presented Brother’s Brother and other key people with a proclamation to officially thank us for our efforts and for what we were able to do for the municipality.
It was an honor to be apart of these trips back to Puerto Rico and I can’t wait for my third service trip to continue to see the beautiful island come back to life.