100×35… Upon the Longest Mile of my volunteer humanitarian journey. (Part I)

Throughout the past decades, during my younger years, I had been traveling to Puerto Rico since the late 1970’s, on board different ships, and by late 1981, San Juan Puerto Rico, became the port of call for the last 3 ships upon which I sailed for the next few years… I would proudly close that chapter of my merchant marine career at the ripe old age of 23. Returning only as if taken a cruise and it stopped by for a few hours until I’d later meet my wife Damaris, who loved her people and her beloved homeland, which we since visited at least once a year.

Although the economy was dwindling, due to mismanagement, corruption, and vulture capitalist greed, while parents yanked their children out of schools, teachers lost their jobs and that vacuum created a huge void in the once very proud and joyful island people’s lifestyle. Although a recent article, written several months before Hurricane Maria, and published in the prestigious New York Times, colorfully boasted celebrated, and listed the Puerto Rican people, as the happiest people on the planet, not sure if the author of that piece had been hanging out in piña coladas and mofongo junction, in an alley somewhere off the rich high-end avenue “en El Condado.”

The grimed reality behind such aggrandizement and promotion, apparently led even the most serious and skeptical level-minded Puertorican to buy into the fake and unrealistic advertising, although knowing quite well it was far from the truth… and the truth was far from that we’d seen on the billboards promoting tourism throughout El Viejo San Juan, and in 5-star hotel magazines. Poverty was looming and it was practically smothering this island and its people, most of whom were, really, really poor.

Although parent, children and most able body young people of working age, were leaving, the island in droves, heading to the mainland USA, claiming their rights as American citizens to fend for a better life, while its infrastructure, rapidly eroded, we somehow had faith and were already considering investing and perhaps retiring here prior and even after the devastation caused by hurricane Maria, which practically destroyed the country, although not as early, but the perhaps, combined need to help out and the love for the country and its people, precipitated such a move.

Months after the hurricane over 90% of the island remained without electricity water fuel and food. Puerto Ricans organized the now historic, Puerto Rican Unity March on Washington that would bring their fight right to the steps of the Capitol. This bold move, was perhaps what made leaders realize that this was a serious matter.

While talking with several professors from the Departmento de Ciencias Médicas University of Puerto Rico, Dra. Elba Diaz and Dr. Heriberto Marin, as we escorted them up the mountains to Miraflores, Orocovis in preparation for our first dental mission, during a conversation, they’d all agree that the ravaging hurricane winds, help rip through the thin veil of Venere, that unmasked the islands misconception of it being a rich and wealthy, heaven-like, American Caribbean paradise. And these folks should know, since they were public health profesora, and founders organizers of the Puertorican Health Brigades.

Following the deadly storm, we were already relocated and living in New York City. My wife and almost everyone I knew of Puerto Rican heritage, were devastated, after weeks of being unable to communicate with their loved ones and close relatives. And as soon as we were able to connect and ship supplies, we then embarked upon the mission.

On the ground, spreading myself thin, between New York, City, Long Island, and Connecticut, thus allowing all Puertoricans with family members to first board that plane, head home to see, visit, and reassure their loved ones that we are here and we were in for the long hall. Reminding them that they could rest assured that we would help out.

Meanwhile, I stayed back home on the ground providing drop-off and pick-up transportation to the airport, collecting and shipping donations, helping to organize, future trips, etc. These were often long, long 24-hour days of driving throughout the state and volunteering for the greater good.

Although my first trip with the mission to Puerto Rico, wouldn’t take place, until the following year, on July 3rd, 2018. My responsibility on the ground in New York, was more logistics, helping to organized drives and collect donations through the church and other kindhearted donors to help us pay for their trips. Damaris and I had purchased an Apple iPad out of our money and conducted a raffle to help cover their airfare. We took 5 teenagers with us, a doctor, Karen, pediatric specialists, and two chaparrones, Rev. Bridget, and my wife, Rev. Dr. Damaris. Additionally, we took pounds of sunflower seeds, corn, thistle, tomatoes, pumpkins and other seeds that could help boost the regeneration of bees, butterflies and other insects that had all pretty much had been wiped out… together with the bark off the trees.

Although, my wife Rev. Whittaker, and I arrived a day early, to be on the ground on time, with the transportation ready to pick up the children and their chaperones. Our mission had been set for Miraflores Orocovis, over a two-hour drive up in the mountains, where the Federal Emergency Management team, (FEMA), perhaps due to it being so impoverished, with the majority of residents, being poor, black uninsured Puerto Ricans, whose majority of of their rooftops had been blown off by the winds. We had secured sufficient accommodations for our group prior to their arrival, unfortunately, the owner of the establishment @ RocksDura had failed to hold it, without a hefty cash deposit, and rather chose a FEMA team who would later arrive and pay for such accommodations in cash. We had to split up our group, leaving the children, their pediatric doctor, and their chaparon up in the three-bedroom apartment in Miraflores and stayed in another Airbnb rental down near the beach in Dorado.

Although it might sound like fun in the sun, giving such fancy names, this wasn’t no pic nick; and it was hardly a paradise. We were over an hour away on a downhill drive that was partly suicidal, given the fact that the island infrastructure was all still badly damaged and in disrepair.

Although we might come down that mountain late at night, we had to be back up that hill early morning to be out in the field at 7:00 am with those kids. We were their leaders and could not fall short and leave them behind.

They joined hands with other local youngsters and worked just as hard as any adult, repairing rooftops, and cleaning up, and they even helped the local ladies whom we had hired for meal preparation to cook, clean up, and lend full participation in the field. Our idea was to reinject the community with hands up, and not a handout. I believe it was nearly a hundred thousand dollars, which had been collected by our congregation to help uplift the area. Amarilis Pagan Jimenes, executive director of Proyecto Matria, would go directly to the hardware store in town and other local small businesses and give them the money so that supplies and food could be purchased and we could proceed without unnecessary interruption.

So our local cooks could head down to the grocery store, identify themselves, and pick up the needed groceries to proceed with cooking that following day.

Everything moved so smoothly that our youngsters, although non-Spanish speaking, joined with their host group of non-English speaking, local youngsters and created a play, which they performed for us live the night before departure. Of course, the following day, we took them to an old sugarcane plantation, to the beach and other interesting areas they might enjoy. A total success!

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