BLOG: Students lend a hand in Puerto Rico

Seven students are spending the start of their summer on an alternative break in Luquillo, Puerto Rico. While there, they will be working alongside a disaster recovery work group through the United Church of Christ and Iglesia Evangélica Unida de Puerto Rico. A majority of their work will be repairing cement roofs on houses that were damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria during the fall of 2017. According to Abby Reed, during this trip they are hoping to repair one roof, gain the technical skills needed and broaden their horizons through by experiencing the Puerto Rican culture.

Students participating in the trip are Abby Reed, Meriah Estremera, Michaela Slone, Penelope Christian, Christopher Storrs and Vanessa Macias along with faculty member Dr. Ginny Gregg.


Day 1

Today our team left campus at 2:30 AM and arrived in Puerto Rico at 5:30 PM. Fortunately, we are still in the same time zone as Ohio. We flew out of Cleveland to Orlando and from Orlando to San Juan. The camp we are staying at is an hour away from San Juan. Personally, I did not expect the view I saw from the airplane window. Of course there were beautiful, sandy beaches, waves, and cruise ships, but there were other sites to see as well. Eventually, I lost count of the number of roofs covered by tarp that covered the heads of the citizens of Puerto Rico. A flimsy, blue tarp is not enough to shield families from the tropical rain storms that frequent this area.

Even though we are a small group of eight, I hope we can make some sort of impact here. Even if we only touch the life of one person, it would make the whole trip worth it. Tonight is just the first night and we have a long week of work ahead of us, but I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to serve these people with joy and bond closer to my team. Even though we only arrived in Puerto Rico this evening, the planning process started early on in the school year. My heart has been in this Puerto Rico since the disaster struck and, again, am very thankful for the opportunity to serve in this way.

Written by Michaela Slone, '19, Health Science Major

Day 2

 

Today we woke up at 6 AM to get ready and prepare for the day's work ahead. We got dressed, ate breakfast, then we had a Devotional with the other group in camp. I was in the group divided up among the other group and we went to work on the home of Antonia Maldonado. We worked to put sealant on her roof to repair it. Afterwards, while waiting for our car, I was able to sit down and talk to Antonia to learn a little bit about her and her life. She has three children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. She was a teacher for 30 years and her children now live in Texas. During the time of the hurricane, her daughter came to get her and evacuate her to Texas. She had returned a month later to find her home completely flooded and water damaged. It was incredible to hear her story. It really reminded me of the mission that we have to help people who are in need, no matter the circumstances.

At a local restaurant we went to, our waitress was amazed to find students from the United States coming to Puerto Rico to help repair homes. She said, to a lot of them, it almost seemed the U.S. didn't care about the state of distress the country has been in. The conversation reiterated to us that the work we are doing here is important and has a purpose.

Written by Vanessa Macias, '21, Political Science and International Relations Major


Day 3 

On day three, a group consisting of myself, Michaela, Kim, and Dr. Gregg left the camp around 8 AM to work. After following the construction director through narrow streets and hills, we reached the house of a kind, older woman named Marta. When we got on the roof of her house, we were in awe at the sight around us. Marta’s house is placed right at the entrance of El Yunque National Park, and the back of it overlooks a valley of trees. After working for about 30 minutes our supervisors came onto the roof to check on us and expressed their surprise and gratitude that the work was almost done already. After another hour of work, we were completed and ready to eat food. The woman who lives in the house, Marta, offered to make our work group lunch. When we initially heard this we were hesitant due to the amount of paint we had on us, however Marta was okay with it. She simply took us to her open basement, turned on a hose, and allowed us to clean up a little.

While we were eating the seafood and vegetable soup she made, Marta showed us photos of her children and grandchildren whom she loves dearly. Feeling full and content, we thanked Marta with the limited amount of Spanish we know and left her house. Just after walking out, we were told that our group would be returning tomorrow to complete a second coat. We were all ecstatic and wished to return some of her gratitude and generosity back to her. When we went to the store later in the evening, we bought a bottle of Coke to replace the one we had drank and a card where we wrote our thanks and had one of our members translate it for her. Meeting Marta put the work we were doing into perspective and made it more personal than working on a roof where you never meet those inside. I think it is safe to say that we are all excited to go back to her house tomorrow and work some more!

Written by Abby Reed, '19, Psychology Major


Day 4 

On today’s adventure, the Heidelberg students and others helped do work around the camp. We had a lovely breakfast with pancakes, eggs, home-fries and fruits. We started working at 8 AM again. One group went back to the house as the rest stayed on the camp. Chris, Vanessa, Penelope, and I worked on painting lines on the parking lots, railings, and speed bumps.

There are a few things I realized on this trip that I am willing to share. First, being that I am an Hispanic woman, I have been spoken to in Spanish multiple times; however I do not know the language much. The language barrier on this trip has saddened yet motivated me at the same time -- sad due to the lack of knowledge of the language and motivation to learn how to speak it. I learned that Kim and others felt the same as I do with this language barrier and it made me feel closer to those on the trip. I am part Puerto Rican and knowing that my ancestors came from this beautiful island has left me in awe. This trip has left me to wanting to learn more Spanish and connect with the Puerto Rican culture and other ethnicities.

Written by Meriah Estremera, '20, Biology major

Day 5 

Day 5 of our trip provided a different type of learning experience. We finished up our service on Day 4 by completing Marta’s roof (see post above by Abby Reed on Day 3) and painting parking lot lines and railings at the camp. Day 5 was our first day off, and we took full advantage of it. We traveled to El Yunque National Park (a rainforest), which was devastated by the hurricanes in 2017, in the morning. We were amazed by how much the park had recovered in that short amount of time. You could see some remnants of the hurricane in the closed trails that have yet to be repaired and trees that died in the storms, but much of the natural beauty has returned. We hiked to the top of Mount Britton, where a tower allows you to see most of eastern portion of Puerto Rico. After making our way back down the trail, we drove to Juan Diego Falls and climbed a rocky incline, using a rope to assist us, to reach the falls. We spent about an hour under the falls in the frigid cold water, which refreshed us after our climb to the peak.

After a short nap back at the camp, we traveled to a bioluminescent bay near Fajardo, where the students kayaked at nighttime. Overall, it was an exhausting and fulfilling day.

I have traveled with Heidelberg students to conferences in other states and to Nicaragua for service trips with Dr. Cindy Lepeley, and I always am impressed with their kindness, generosity, humility, and awareness of the issues facing the world. I have listened to students on this trip as they express their opinions and concerns about women’s rights, white privilege, and ways to serve yet not exploit those we hope to help. Heidelberg students are thoughtful and caring, and they are excited about traveling, learning, and giving back to others. I am privileged to have participated in this experience with our students.

Written by Dr. Ginny Gregg


Day 6 

As our trip is winding down, we saw that Day 6 provided us with a cultural learning experience. Yesterday our group leaders, Abby Reed and Dr. Gregg, created a plan for Day 6 that consisted of traveling to the other side of the island and visiting some of the must-see tourist locations that Puerto Rico has to offer. We left camp at around 9 AM and headed toward the town of Isabela. We saw sights like the Guajataca Tunnel which connects the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas to transport sugar cane. We walked through the tunnel and ended up on a beach that was absolutely breathtaking. After we left the tunnel, we made a quick pit stop at McDonald’s to get some chicken nuggets and then headed toward the Punta Borinquen Lighthouse. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go in the lighthouse because after we arrived we found out that it was owned by the Coast Guard. So we did a quick drive by and then headed to El Parterre. This was probably my favorite part of the day. There were houses on the side of a hill that had been painted and you could walk through them to see all the different artwork. We spent a decent amount of time looking at the art and talking to some locals before we headed to Jobos Beach. Today, we had the opportunity to learn more about the history of Puerto Rico and see how far other parts of the island have come since Hurricane Maria. My car, which consisted of Abby, Penelope, Michaela and myself, talked about what we would do if we lived in a town that had been struck by such a devastating hurricane.

Back on Day 1, Chris found a baby lizard in our room who quickly became known as Baby Nate. We spent quality time with Baby Nate until Day 3 when we came back to the room and he was no longer with us. It took us until today to plan his funeral service, so after we got back from Isabela we laid baby Nate to rest. R.I.P. Baby Nate

This isn’t the first service trip I’ve done through Heidelberg and they become more humbling every time. I’ve gone to the border trip with Profe (Dr. Cindy Lepeley) and to the Dominican Republic this past spring break to spend time in less fortunate communities. Participating in these trips makes me so thankful for what I have and being able to go help those in need. I’m able to meet people like Marta who are beyond grateful that you are there to help them after they have struggled so much. Leaving Marta on our last day of work at her house was hard, she was so excited to be able to share about her life with us, even though we didn’t completely understand what each other was saying. This week has not only helped us get closer with each other, but really look and see who we are as people and what we want to accomplish. You can see in each one of us that we want to help others. It is so heartwarming to see the love and compassion that we all have for people that we don’t know. Finally, this week has taught us to work with people who have different views than us, even though it’s not the easiest at times, and to be flexible because things aren’t always going to go the way they are planned.

Written by Kimberly West, '20, Political Science major

As this is our last day in Puerto Rico, we can reflect on our time here. Our day started out with a memorial service for Nathaniel Ralph III (Baby Nate), our lizard. I took the initiative to adopt him and make him my own. Nate was sadly only with us for a couple of days before passing away of natural causes. After our service, we traveled to San Juan and saw some beautiful historical sites. In San Juan, we ate at Ostar Costa, visited the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, and saw various street performers.

Overall, this trip was more than I expected. This is my first service trip and I can say that it will not be my last. I enjoyed myself from the moment we got off the plane. At the first house, we painted met one of the nicest ladies named Tony. She didn't speak much English, but she was very nice when she greeted you. I enjoyed the work we did everyday because no matter what the task was we got it done. Every day was filled with both highs and lows. However, the highs always outweighed the lows. I would definitely come back just to sight see and view different parts of the island. From the beautiful beaches, street art, lizards/iguanas, plants, mountains, and natural waterfalls, Puerto Rico has a lot to offer. This is not me saying good bye to Puerto Rico, just a see you later!

Written by Chris Storrs, '20, Accounting major

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