By Jerry Hartz

 

The beauty of Puerto Rico endears you and the warmth of its people embraces you — but if you fall in love with the island, it can break your heart.

With lush forests, wide sandy beaches and mountains bursting with wildlife, Puerto Rico beckons with natural beauty. But that same tropical paradise lies directly in the path of Category 5 hurricanes, and the island still rumbles with earthquakes from its volcanic past.

From February 14th – 19th, 2020, nearly a dozen volunteers from Rock Spring UCC flew to Puerto Rico to install solar panels in communities still reeling from Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes. The group focused on 3 CAMS — local community groups that have come together as self-reliant bastions of support in the wake of the recent natural disasters.

Following up on a trip by Craig Cheney and Susan Peters last fall, the Rock Spring volunteers first traveled to Bucarabones, a village high in the western mountains — only reachable by traveling single-lane switchback roads. In a 2-story community center, the group finished installing solar panels on the roof and placed LED lights and fans throughout the building. Bucarabones will now have a place of shelter from future storms that is no longer reliant on the grid for intermittent power. Educational classes, entrepreneurship, cooking, and a workshop are now in the works in this formerly abandoned school house.

Susan Peters dons a hard hat and safety glasses in Bucarabones.

Next came Lares, a community of 10,000 with a much larger 2-story schoolhouse that has been abandoned since 2007. The Rock Spring group joined the community in cleaning out rain-soaked schoolbooks, broken desks, horse manure and outdoor detritus that had blown in through broken window placements. By the end of the short stay, a small solar unit pulsed on the roof and supplied enough electricity for power washing equipment and tools needed to begin the structural repairs necessary to make this a community center with an agricultural study wing in the works.

John Overholt and Stuart Scott get ready to install LED lights and fans.

The third location was in Las Carolinas, a community 30 minutes outside of old San Juan. Rock Spring volunteers placed solar panels, inverters and batteries in yet another abandoned schoolhouse that is already a thriving community center with a kitchen, senior center and thrift store on site.

Evelyn Hartz, Chris Stewart and Richard Frye unload solar panels at Las Carolinas.

In each community, the Puerto Rican people shared their appreciation for the Rock Spring contributions that will improve their lives. Plentiful food, warm smiles and shared stories — through broken English on one side and broken Spanish on the other — filled hearts with joy and mutual understanding. Heartbreaking stories emerged of a tough economy with few job prospects, year-long lapses without electrical power, homes too damaged to repair and with no means for financing, and entire families living in tents by the side of the road due to structural damage caused by the earthquakes.

One never ceases to amaze at the capacity of the human spirit to overcome natural disasters. The local CAM organizations demonstrate the self-help determination and resilience of the Puerto Rican people to rebuild their communities. For some Puerto Ricans whom we met, it is too much to bear and they are moving to the states to join family members. However, the vast majority will remain, rebuild and attempt to thrive by whatever means necessary.

With a colonial past and territorial status, Puerto Rico is a bride engaged to the U.S. but without the promise of an altar. Whatever the failures of the U.S. government and of the state to meet such pressing needs, one can only hope that the Rock Spring volunteers and this mission trip left Puerto Ricans feeling more secure that humanity is all in this together and that there are friends near and far who will never abandon those in need.

Together with our partners from the Solar Village Project, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and the Footprint Project, Rock Spring volunteers and financial support have helped 3 Puerto Rican communities burn brighter with hope for the future — whatever comes their way.

The Las Carolinas community center.