Carlos Calderon and other volunteers deliver aid in Juana Díaz's Cuevas sector

Volunteers continue lifting up Puerto Rico - Part 2

Wallice J. de la Vega

JUANA DIAZ, Puerto Rico -- This report's first part was a profile of Betsilda Collazo Batista, founder and president of Relif4PR, a local humanitarian foundation. Born out of the bureaucratic complexity of the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States after hurricanes Irma and Maria, the organization is a shining example of the alternate tenacity of common citizens in the face of the material and human misery still suffered by the island's largest segment.

We continue from Cuevas rural sector in Juana Diaz, accompanying Relif4PR, its allied organizations and individual volunteers.

"The community we are about to visit is a very suffered one," said Jaime Collazo, a Lieutenant with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, and one of this town's natives who served as the local contact and guide to the Cuevas visit. "Already (before the hurricane) there was poverty; there's little work; the few who work are in the quarries."

Sarah Gordon accompanies Fundacion Stefano volunteers

Juana Diaz is located midway along Puerto Rico's southern coast. Half of its 50,000 residents live below the poverty level, and many of its rural dwellers work in local sand, lime and gravel quarries. In the early 18th century, the town's quarries produced a type of marble highly valued in international markets, but the closing of many of them left the rural areas in deeper poverty.

Carlos Calderon, a Guatemalan native and U.S. Army Major stationed in Kansas -- and married to a Puerto Rican -- was one of the foreigners who joined this relief effort. His motivation, he said, was not only his family ties, but also "that human contact, that embrace, that strong handshake that would allow (the victims) to discover hope for a better future."

"The key is the contact with a population hurt not only in practical resources, property," Calderon said, "but also to distribute a bit of the love of those of us who have the fortune of having everything and not having suffered such a disastrous storm."

Joining the effort from Oklahoma was Sarah Gordon, a natural disasters volunteer who came with the Camp Iron Horse organization. After three weeks in Puerto Rico, she met with personnel from Centros Sor Isolina Ferré in Ponce to offer help providing schools with solar energy and internet connection. Iron Horse also brought food, personal hygiene products, water filters and solar lights to be distributed in the mountain region. Gordon connected with Relief4PR through CSFI.

"What has been challenging in Puerto Rico is that it is not only an island, but there are so many mountains, the roads are damaged," said Gordon. She mentioned that, compared to what she's used to, "the electricity and water systems are damaged and so the logistics of the situation and the long-term nature of the recovery is even more so than if someone had lost everything in a tornado." Gordon is in PR indefinitely.

Sorimar Betancourt, Fundacion Stefano president, at a local country store

For Fundacion Stefano, helping the victims of hurricanes Irma and Maria came as an extension of its humanitarian mission of promoting organ donations.

"When my son died in a carjacking and he donated his organs, I saw the miracle of life-giving," said Sorimar Betancourt, president of Stefano. While coordinating air transportation for a child to a Florida hospital after Hurricane Maria, she made contacts at Banyan Air Service, based at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Amid the damage caused by Maria, Stefano has facilitated air transfer for more than 600 patients from Puerto Rico. The organization has taken advantage those incoming flight from Florida to bring material aid the foundation has distributed around the island's central region.

On her part, Lourdes Jimenez came to Puerto Rico from Houston specifically to help "in any way she could," bringing her experience with Hurricane Harvey in that city.

"I expected things to be better because three months have gone by," said Jiménez. "The progress seen is minimal. An island of 35 by 100 miles … I come from such a big city that recovered so fast (from Hurricane Harvey); before my eyes it's shameful for the U.S. … that there is so little progress."

Houston has a population of about 2.3 million and a 10,062 square miles metropolitan area.

Lourdes Jimenez, a Houston educator and artist

Jimenez, an educator with Communities in Schools of Houston and a professional singer, was the messenger for Family Point Resources, a community organization. The entity held an annual fundraising Christmas bazaar for gifts that were to be given to needy children. This year Family Point chose Puerto Rico's children and Jimenez as its ambassador. Some of the gifts brought were given out in Cuevas.

Cuevas neighbors have been using water from a spring that pours from the mountain side for all their needs, including drinking. However, Edwin Vazquez Asencio, an RCAP representative, said that one of the greatest dangers facing Puerto Rico's central region has to do with precisely with contaminated water. He said the problem's worst part is lack of knowledge.

"There are communities that are not connected with the (public) potable water service, but even those that are (normally) connected do not respect basic sanitary measures to keep water drinkable," Vazquez said. "Three out of every four homes we have seen today have received filters and they are not using them".

Asked about the recent local leptospirosis epidemic alarm, Vazquez explained the leptospira bacteria normally exists in Puerto Rico due to its tropical climate. He said there is regularly an average of three or four cases of leptospirosis found per year, but within the first month after the hurricane the were about 70 cases.

"That's an epidemic, but why wasn't it declared an epidemic?, said Vazquez. "The rule says that if it shoots up tree times the normal incidence, it already should be considered an outbreak or an epidemic." The day of our visit, he tested the spring were the neighbors get their water. The results were positive for feces.

Edwin Vázquez instructs Migdalia Cintron on the use of a water filter

One of the most touching aid deliveries in Cuevas was to Migdalia Cintron. What is left of her small house is located within the forest by one of Cuevas' third rate, narrowest roads, where she has lived all her life. What is left is a rectangular wooden box of two rooms -- her bedroom and another one full of debris. Another, smaller section she uses as kitchen has cinder block walls. Without a roof, both sections are covered by blue plastic tarps.

A humble person without any schooling, Cintron appeared not to understand clearly the instructions for the use of a solar lamp and water filter she received.

"Here we are, any way we can," she said calmly while the last members of the group exited her house. "God will provide; God bless you."

For donations to Relief4PR:
United States: Lisa Hernandez (Miami) 786-459-0787.
Puerto Rico: Betsilda Collazo Batista: 787-649-8223 o


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© Wallice J. de la Vega 1995-2018
San Germán, Puerto Rico
wallice @ wallice . com  |  787 455 0875