Joseph Figueroa went to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico over the summer, knowing the work would be hard. But what he didn’t realize was that the experience would evoke emotions he’ll never forget.
“Puerto Rico didn’t need me as much as I needed Puerto Rico,” said the Hunter College Health Psychology major, who hopes to become a nurse practitioner. “Our labor focused on rebuilding and repairing homes, but I realized we were also restoring faith, hope and happiness in the midst of the chaos some of our homeowners had dealt with since that day of the storm.”
Figueroa, who has paternal roots in Puerto Rico, was among 195 CUNY students and three members of the University’s Board of Trustees who went to the island to rebuild homes still seriously damaged from Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Students described the work, in sweltering heat, as grueling but also said it was the most rewarding experience of their young lives. They spoke of the gratitude – and also the many meals – they received from people who had lost almost everything. One example: A man who didn’t have a kitchen cooked for students in a neighbor’s house.
“Our training helped build our team, equip us with skills on situational awareness and psychosocial variables we could encounter,” said Figueroa, whose second visit to storm-torn Puerto Rico took him inside these devastated homes. “What it didn’t prepare me for was the lifelong relationships I crafted, the sense of purpose and value I never realized was missing and, most importantly, the emotions I felt from seeing the hope and happiness that filled each homeowner’s eyes each morning as we arrived in our groups to start this work.”
Hurricane Maria, the worst ever recorded in this American territory, killed about 3,000 people during and after the storm, according to official estimates. Included among them was the grandmother of one student volunteer, Myra Rosa of City College. The CUNY students were part of the New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative deployed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. About 650 students from CUNY and SUNY accompanied skilled labor and aid volunteers in eight separate two-week cohorts. The volunteers put in almost 41,000 hours as they cleaned, restored and rebuilt 178 homes.
In September, Gov. Cuomo announced an expansion of the initiative and committed to deploy 500 additional CUNY and SUNY volunteers, beginning as early as winter break. Students will continue to work on homes while faculty and graduate students work in partnership with UNICEF USA and local nonprofits to help those still traumatized by Maria. The CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy will join this effort.
CUNY Interim Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz has called the initiative “a resounding success” and said the rebuilding effort in Puerto Rico “has been a transformative experience for our students. The new collaboration with UNICEF USA gives them another way to aid thousands of U.S. citizens who are still coping with the emotional aftermath and trauma.”
Three CUNY trustees who traveled to Puerto Rico, Lorraine A. Cortés-Vázquez, Michael Arvanites and Kevin D. Kim, echoed the emotions of the students with whom they worked in August in “Vietnam,” a barrio on the coast of Guaynabo and Cataño, that is home to many veterans and widows, and later in the mountainous inland municipality of Barranquilla. The trustees scraped floors, used power saws and clamps, and made other repairs. Arvanites is a certified construction safety trainer.
“It was nothing like I expected it to be,” said Cortés-Vázquez, whose family came to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1920s. “I expected hearts and hammers: Christmas in August. Home repairs for the low-income elderly. I was devastated to see the conditions a year later, but what I also found were students doing incredible work that was essential for these homes to be at least safe. Some of it was grueling, backbreaking work, which they did with enthusiasm and complete generosity.”
The trustee, a former New York secretary of state, said she was heartened to see one grandmother putting up Disney characters in her broken home because her daughter and granddaughter were returning to the island. But much of what Cortés-Vázquez saw was disheartening. She described two houses that still didn’t have running water and had to use hoses. She said she walked into the rotting bathroom of one of these houses, and “immediately I had a gag reflex and I cried like a baby. I could not tolerate this for four seconds, and a woman had been living like this for a year. The shame that came over me, and the sense of gratitude: mixed emotions. I left there with a low level of rage, and with a commitment to correct what has happened in Puerto Rico.”
Kim, who immigrated to New York City with his family when he was a child, said he wanted to see the initiative firsthand so he could pursue similar opportunities for CUNY students to partner with aid organizations. “What really got to me was seeing from the plane all the blue FEMA tarps instead of roofs, as we descended into San Juan,” Kim said. He explained that this led him to the shocking realization that there was so much more work to be done.
York College student Marie Ange Richard had similar thoughts, but added that “after Puerto Rico, I felt powerful because I was able to put a roof over a family’s house.”
Rosa, the student who lost a grandmother in the storm and still has family members on the island who were severely affected by Maria, said that on her return to the island she worked “on deconstructing and reconstructing roofs.” She added: “I was a translator between the volunteers and the residents. I spoke with families about their experiences during the hurricane and offered them emotional support.” Rosa also surveyed “completed” houses to see if more work was needed; electricity is still unreliable and she helped to hurricane-proof student living quarters.
Other students said that after they realized the strenuous work they had to do, they did not think they could go on with the trip. But they did. Many said they were unprepared when they saw the devastation that remained, and would never forget the lessons they learned by helping people in dire need, who expressed their gratitude and friendship in any way they could.
The CUNY Service Corps, led by the Office of Workforce Development & Continuing Education in the Office of Academic Affairs, developed the requirements for the CUNY students, who attend 18 of the University’s colleges and two of its graduate schools. Each student received a $500 stipend, which many spent on provisions for the families they helped.
Students could earn academic credit by taking a service-learning course, designed at Lehman College in conjunction with the curriculum committee of the Department of Latin American and Latino Studies, said associate professor Teresita Levy. A special topics class for students going to Puerto Rico was also offered by New York City College of Technology.
Nearly 2,800 CUNY students applied to participate. Among the chaperones who accompanied those selected was Livia Nieves, a Lehman College adjunct professor and University marketing designer whose family remains in Puerto Rico. “I decided to go to break out of the breathtaking feeling that I have not done enough to help my people,” she said, echoing a sentiment expressed by others who joined the initiative.
Some students described the connections they forged in spite of cultural differences. Ashley Mock Chu of Queens College, who is of Chinese descent, asked if she needed to take off her shoes before coming inside to eat at the home of a woman whose roof she had repaired. She was told, with great warmth, to leave them on. Another student, Nigina Ortikova, is from Uzbekistan. She is vice president of an international honor society at LaGuardia Community College and would like to pursue a career as a human rights advocate. Lehman College student Mharielys Rodriguez noted that the experience inspired her to apply to a service program in Peru.
The tale of Hurricane Maria is also a story of assistance offered at CUNY. During the 2017-2018 academic year, 255 displaced college students from Puerto Rico attended CUNY at the in-state tuition rate. Among them is Monica Martinez-Raga, who enrolled in City College and returned to the island over the summer to help rebuild. “Now, more than ever, I am determined to become the best professional I can be,” she said. “To help the island recover.”