Students put rebuilding Puerto Rico ahead of summer fun

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Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island’s landscape, Puerto Rico is still a long way from recovery. With that in mind, some Lehman College students ditched a summer time at the beach and instead traveled to the Caribbean island to help rebuild damaged communities there.

“I’m from Puerto Rico, but I haven’t been there in three years,” said Mharielys Rodriguez, a rising senior at Lehman who was one of 13 students volunteering. “When I heard the news about the hurricane and the damages it caused, I felt upset because I couldn’t do anything. But when this opportunity came to me in the email, I was happy to seize the moment.”

The email shared details about “NY Stands with Puerto Rico,” a recovery and rebuilding effort involving Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the CUNY Service Corps. Since mid-June, students from both CUNY and SUNY schools have traveled to the island through non-profit organizations. In fact, up to 500 students are expected to help in deployment rotations of up to four weeks.

Once in Puerto Rico, students work alongside skilled professionals performing construction and building tasks, while receiving a stipend and college credit for their services.

Odett Hernandez, a Lehman nursing student, also participated in the recovery. Hernandez spent her time rebuilding roofs — and hearts — she said. However, this wasn’t her first time doing relief work. This past year, Hernandez traveled to Nicaragua where she worked in a rural medical clinic.

“I believe that the opportunity to see others’ perspective and change your own is a life-changing experience that can change you for the better,” Hernandez said. “I want to be able to feel like I made a real difference, not only in my life, but in the lives of those I would be helping.”

Rodriguez stayed in Barranquitas, a small mountain district in Puerto Rico’s central region — one of six towns the relief program is present. 

“When I found out that I was accepted, it was a feeling that I couldn’t describe,” Rodriguez said. “I realized I can be a help to my community.”

Born in East Tremont but raised in San Juan, Rodriguez was happy to go. During her stay, her team grinded through mold and repaired broken windows in homes. Despite the damage she saw in the cracked floors and caved-in roofs, townsfolk were in good spirits, especially after they saw how supportive the volunteers were, Rodriguez said. 

New York has concentrated its Puerto Rico work through the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort, which has distributed more than 4,400 pallets of supplies from more than a dozen donation sites across the state, according to the program’s website. 

Cuomo also has pushed for a $94.4 billion federal aid package to Puerto Rico, which suffered billions of dollars in damage from the Category 4 storm last September.

Although the students brought hope, tragedy still persists on the island. Rodriguez met an elderly woman there who had lost her daughter in the hurricane.

“She did not want to really talk about it, but she said I was like a daughter to her while spending my last four days working on her house,” Rodriguez said. “That had an impact on me because I never got to meet my grandmother. She welcomed us with food and care, which meant a lot. 

“It was an unforgettable experience.” 

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