It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Maria devastated a majority of Puerto Rico, ruining the landscape and taking out power to much of the island. Ever since, New York State has been leading recovery efforts for our American neighbors to help them return to normal life. In early 2018, through a partnership with New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, SUNY organized 500 student volunteers to head to Puerto Rico for the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative through the summer.
The last two weeks saw the first of five summer sessions that brought SUNY students from a number of schools – 44 students from 15 universities (University at Buffalo, Westchester CC, New Paltz, University at Albany, SUNY Delhi, Nassau CC, Oswego, Cortland, Farmingdale State, Buffalo State, SUNY Polytechnic, Old Westbury, Purchase, and Potsdam) – to the island to assist with the recovery efforts that included debris removal, roof repair, and light construction. Their experiences are changing the island along with their own perspectives.
Students from these 15 schools spent ten days working an average of eight hours per day cleaning and repairing houses. Sarah Kilroy, an economics major at the University at Albany, is one of the student volunteers on the ground in Puerto Rico, “I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad when I got here, I thought being so far after the hurricane… our country would have helped more. So seeing all the power still out in some places and looking at how it is now, I was really shocked.”
Most of the work being done is in the homes of Puerto Rican families, giving students the chance to hear the stories and learn about the experiences of the victims affected by Hurricane Maria. In some cases, the families work with students to provide meals and conversations to help them while they work.
“There’s a lot of interaction with families. HEART 9/11 and All Hands and Hearts are working with the municipalities of Orocovis and Toa Baja, respectively, so they’re canvassing the neighborhood to identify and take in projects, often working house by house on getting them back to where they were,” said Peter Velz, Assistant Vice Chancellor for External Affairs at SUNY.
Students are getting a first-hand look at the friendly, positive outcome of the island residents. Although conditions are still not optimal for many, the attitudes remain positive and hopeful as they work with volunteers to bring their communities back to full strength. A student from SUNY Oswego commented how “Something I think is cool here is how friendly everyone is. Everyone seems genuinely excited to see other people no matter who they are or who they’re with. It’s a refreshing change opposed to, if I don’t know you, I wont talk to you. It’s just different from home.”
These efforts in Puerto Rico show the commitment of SUNY to use its size and strength outside of New York State to benefit students and citizens. For example, the SUNY family has participated in fundraising efforts and on-the-ground volunteer opportunities in Puerto Rico and neighboring Caribbean islands for a number of years. The Board of Trustees authorized SUNY colleges and universities to offer in-state tuition to students from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands displaced by the hurricanes for the 2018-19 academic year. And SUNY schools have contributed with other institutions to assist the Red Cross in relief efforts for hurricane damaged islands.
Programs at the University at Albany and the University at Buffalo have provided practical legal research and homeland security support to the struggling communities in Puerto Rico – while SUNY Oswego students are working with NECHAMA, a Jewish response to disaster volunteer organization.
New York State and SUNY are committed to mobilizing students to volunteer with non-profit organizations that are aiding in the reconstruction and revitalization efforts of communities across the island damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
With this first two-week session concluding, we now move on to the next four through the rest of the summer. Students are all too eager to join in to these efforts.
As one volunteer said from Puerto Rico, “I can confidently say that my mindset within the days that I have been here has changed. Spreading positivity, getting to know everyone – we have a limited time on this earth and this experience, helping people for two weeks… I’m sure by the end of the two weeks I am going to be a completely different person.”
You can learn more of the ongoing efforts by visiting www.suny.edu/puerto-rico.
Taras Kufel is the Manager of Digital Engagement at the State University of New York.