By: Jen Russon
A group of volunteers from First Church in Coral Springs, and New Horizon Church in Southwest Ranches, are on a mission to rebuild communities in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
After Hurricane Maria pummeled the island in 2017 – the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years, a recovery effort has been ongoing.
Steve Rivera, a Coral Springs resident and leader of a recent volunteer mission to San Juan, said that his 12 member group helps displaced Puerto Ricans get back into their homes.
“There are 3.1 million people still suffering, still living in tents. In one of the houses I worked on, the owner’s things are still scattered on the lawn. I went into what had been a little girl’s room and it was destroyed. You think to yourself, this was somebody’s life,” said Rivera.
Trained in construction work, Rivera said that his mission group focused their efforts in Carolina, a small district of San Juan.
“I like to show people the culture here — take them to the beaches,” said Rivera who lodged in a church during the mission in January.
He said the volunteer work mostly entailed putting new roofs on gutted homes, and through donations to Umcor.org, it was possible to repair destroyed homes to make them habitable again. Each home is assigned a monetary amount, and every volunteer travels to Puerto Rico on his or her own dime.
“A bishop [in Catalina] said that about eight volunteer teams per week come through, and that he thinks recovery is a five to ten-year project at this point.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Rivera lived there until he was three-years-old. He has a brother who never left, and is staying with a relative until his house is repaired. Many residents in the small, hurricane ravaged districts of San Juan are doing the same.
Each person on Rivera’s team brings a unique skill set and are thoroughly vetted before they can volunteer by going through health and background checks.
No one under the age of 21 is permitted to work and the process of getting cleared for mission work could take several months.
“If you want to volunteer, the best way is to go through a church. At mine, we find out what your skill set is first. The worst thing you could do if you want to help, is just show up at a work site,” said Rivera, who has been interested in recovery efforts like this one since Hurricane Andrew swept through South Florida in 1992.
One of his team members, Carolyn Pannier, said she was surprised by how well the group – many of them retirees – clicked. A bookkeeper at New Horizon Church, Pannier and her husband were part of the two-week volunteer effort.
“The need in San Juan is ongoing. It’s a humbling experience to volunteer – very eye-opening to see people still without hot water, or air conditioning. I’d go back again,” said Pannier.
Rivera, who is now retired but used to work as an accountant, will likely be the one to book the trip. He said he found an amazingly low rate on Southwest on this last one, adding that his wife stays home because she has a job at Lowe’s Hardware.
“Someone’s got to stay home and pay for all my trips, Rivera joked. He added that there is no greater feeling than helping families get back into their homes.
“I was in Puerto Rico in May doing mission work, again this January, and want to go back sometime in the summer. I’m putting together a DVD, a presentation, to show at my church and hope to recruit new volunteers,” he said.
If you are interested in learning more about mission work in Puerto Rico, contact Rafe Vigil, Mission and Outreach Pastor at New Horizon Church.
Jen Russon is a freelance writer and English Language Arts teacher. She has published two novels to Amazon Kindle and lives in Coral Springs with her family.