In late September 2017, Hurricane Maria bore down on the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico, knocking out power, destroying homes, and reaping an estimated death toll of about three thousand souls. The destruction motivated more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans to flea the island, and relocate to the mainland United States.
Many US citizens have criticized the Federal government’s response to the catastrophe for not being of sufficient scale and speed. USA Today reported that six months after the hurricane struck, 200,000 families still lacked electricity. A year has passed and public buildings like hospitals are still damaged, isolated areas are still without water, and the electric grid is subject to frequent outages. This has all taken place on territory for which the government of the richest nation in the world bares responsibility.
Seeing the inadequate response of the Federal government and FEMA, Governor Cuomo led the State of New York in announcing a multipronged initiative titled “The New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative”. The state sent a Tactical assessment team to identify areas in the most need of resources and manpower. Afterwards, teams of CUNY and SUNY students from schools all over New York, spent the summer working alongside employees from construction and building trades to help rebuild the country’s devastated communities. The student led support initiative was facilitated by UNICEF USA, which committed up to $500,000 for supplies.
Bhavina Hemnath, a senior majoring in sociology commented on CUNY’s effort to help those affected by Hurricane Maria. “Devestations such as Hurricane Maria happen far too often, and leave many in need of aid. I think it is great CUNY took the initiative to help those in need, I hope we continue to provide this service.”
Mr. Cuomo described how a total of 3000 students applied for positions to work in Puerto Rico with the service corps. There was only capacity in the program for 500. Those selected worked full work days, five days a week, in two week long shifts. They mucked and gutted homes, worked to suppress mold, and repaired and strapped roofs. These efforts resulted in the renovation of 178 homes.
In a YouTube video produced by CUNY TV, City University Interim Chancellor, Vita Rabinowitz, described how the student volunteers not only worked full days as construction workers, but also “interacted daily with families, communities, and non-profit organizations.” She ended the interview by stating that the trip was “truly an academic experience” and “much more than that” at the same time.
That same video featured an interview with student volunteer Manuele Ruvolo of the NYC College of Technology. He stood with his work helmet in hand and a renovated home in the background, as he reflected on the positive impact that the Service Corps trip had produced. “When you get to meet the homeowners and you get to see their little kids it’s really emotional because they’re so happy for us to be here but you can see the sadness in their face from what happened.”
Some of the students had deeply personal reasons for volunteering with the Public Service Corps. Before leaving for Puerto Rico to volunteer, Myra Rosa of the City College of New York described how Hurricane Maria personally impacted her life, and how that motivated her to serve in Puerto Rico. “I have a grandmother who passed away as a result of the hurricane. That’s when my passion for the initiative grew.” She then expressed how the opportunity was “a huge privilege”.
The students received academic credit, valuable work experience, cross-cultural knowledge, and potentially lifelong connections for their altruistic commitment. It’s clear that both the helpers, and the helped benefited greatly from this exchange.