“They were excited to interact with us and would say ‘¡Por fin! Tengo mas gente con quien yo puedo hablar’, ‘finally I have more people to talk to.’”—Aaron Fortin, John Jay student volunteer.
Dedicated to making a difference in the world, this past June, John Jay’s CUNY Service Corps students participated in a Puerto Rico relief effort. After the destruction of last year’s Hurricane Maria, residents of the island are still struggling to rebuild their homes. “I became aware of the devastation hurricane Maria left on the island through the media, and I wanted to find a way that I could help,” says Aaron Fortin, a second-year graduate student majoring in Emergency Management. “Regardless of any cultural barriers, it is our responsibility to make a difference in people’s lives.” By repairing homes, the students hoped to bring a sense of unity, compassion and support to the island, all while connecting with the local community. To find out more about their transformative experience, we spoke with a few of the volunteers.
Second-Year Graduate Student in Emergency Management
“If there are any opportunities to go help out, go help out. We shouldn’t wait for someone to tell us to give a helping hand.”—Alexis Augustine, John Jay student volunteer.
As a fluent Spanish speaker, Aaron Fortin found it easy to communicate with everyone in the community. “Each homeowner connected with us exceptionally well,” says Fortin. “They were excited to interact with us and would say ‘¡Por fin! Tengo mas gente con quien yo puedo hablar’, ‘finally I have more people to talk to.’” Putting his Spanish speaking abilities to good use, Fortin helped enhance the communication between homeowners and non-Spanish speakers, forming a stronger bond between everyone. One particular community member struck a special chord in Fortin’s heart. “Though I didn’t see this one homeowner much, when I did, she would approach me with a big smile and a kiss,” says Fortin. “She would go to her backyard, pick tomatoes and give them to us. She gave us the most she could as a token of appreciation.”
Senior Majoring in Law and Society
“As a global citizen, if a person is in need, it is our duty to answer the call.”—Jeremy Brown, John Jay student volunteer.
Prior to going to Puerto Rico, Alexis Augustine was worried about the potential language barrier she might face since she doesn’t speak Spanish. But after arriving in San Juan, and interacting with the people, her concern disappeared. “A lot of the students on the trip came from diverse backgrounds,” says Augustine. “And many people in San Juan understood English. But no matter what language people in the community spoke, everyone was amazingly welcoming.” Fully embracing the experience, Augustine found that the homeowners were warm and helpful in every way. “I was working on concrete roofs when I met an amazing man named Filiberto,” says Augustine. “Filiberto was always on the roof working, but he would immediately run out and get tools whenever we needed them. After a lot of hard work, people in the community would make us lunch, showing both their appreciation and kindness.” Grateful for her experience and the people she met, Augustine offers this piece of advice to her fellow students. “If there are opportunities to go help out, go help out. We shouldn’t wait for someone to tell us to give a helping hand.”
Senior Majoring in International Criminal Justice
Even though Jeremy Brown isn’t from Puerto Rico, the trip felt personal for him. As an Afro-Latino from the South Bronx, the island’s culture was engrained in him. “I have lived in the South Bronx all my life,” says Brown. “The roots of the Borinquén culture have raised me.” With this personal connection, Brown deeply felt the importance of supporting the people of Puerto Rico when they needed it most. “The numerous hurricanes and tropical storms have deeply affected many parts of Puerto Rico, making it a struggle to rebuild the land,” says Brown. “Interacting with the locals was crucial. Just having a basic conversation with the people goes a long way.” After his experience on the island, Brown understood the value and need to volunteer on a deeper level. “As a global citizen, if a person is in need, it is our duty to answer the call.”