Making a Difference in Puerto Rico with Books, Backpacks & Machetes

Posted on November 29, 2018 by  |  Share


My Eyewitness to Tragedy

By Amaris White

Catholic Charities Director of Volunteer Services


On Election Day morning I found myself at the Newark airport with 60 pounds of backpacks and children’s books. For the last couple months, we had held a book drive for Spanish-English bilingual pre-K books, and we had each been tasked with bringing an extra carry-on and checked bag to help bring 400 books and 80 backpacks to Puerto Rico. 

After last year’s hurricane, Catholic Charities has been working to support Puerto Rico’s relief efforts on the island, as well as working with Puerto Rican evacuees in New York. This was my first trip to Puerto Rico with Catholic Charities, but many of our staff have been providing support and resources over numerous trips this last year.

Catholic Charities held our Day of Service at the SOMOS Conference on Wednesday, November 7, in Puerto Rico. SOMOS is a nonprofit organization that unites the Latino community, raises awareness, advocates and elevates social consciousness on public policy in collaboration with the New York State Assembly / Senate Puerto Rican & Hispanic Task Force. The conference meets once a year in both Albany and Puerto Rico. Catholic Charities has attended SOMOS for the last several years, and we were grateful that so many of the attendees joined us in our Day of Service, supporting our mission of helping those in need, especially since so many New Yorkers have roots in Puerto Rico. 

Although long since faded from our daily news stream, the devastation and destruction left by Hurricane Maria is still palpable. Today you can easily visit Puerto Rico and believe that the island has fully recovered – but if you choose to leave the cities, you’re immediately struck by how much we still need to do to help Puerto Rico. This year the SOMOS conference focused on rebuilding Puerto Rico.

Fifty volunteers from SOMOS joined Catholic Charities at one of the New York Foundling’s head start programs in Cataño. The Foundling is a part of Catholic Charities’ Federation of 90 Agencies. The Foundling has programs in both New York and Puerto Rico, and it has been supporting children and their families since well before the hurricane. However, our assistance and resources are even more important today. Forty adorable students dressed in traditional outfits showed up to our event with their siblings and parents.

After the students participated in story time and performed a series of songs and dances, it was time for the main event! Volunteers guided each of the students and their siblings (80 kids!) to our library of 400 donated books – everything from Dr. Seuss to Curious George. Each child chose a book to take home (the remaining books supplemented the school library), and then selected a backpack that oftentimes was nearly half their size!

We finished our afternoon by enjoying a meal together. Our volunteers served the children and families a small feast, and then we joined the families to laugh and share stories. It was an incredibly rewarding first day to SOMOS. 

On Day 2 I found myself using a machete for two hours to help clear out an overgrown and abandoned military base that is being converted into an ecotourism hostel, but that’s a story for next time!)

Catholic Charities is responding to the needs of our neighbors during the 
COVID-19 pandemic.

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