12/7/2017 9:00:00 AM AFTER HURRICANES Catholics in Diocese aid
Puerto Rico's recovery
A FAMILY IN a remote area outside Las Marias, Puerto Rico, a month after Hurricane Maria. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
On Nov. 30 at Amsterdam High School, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger participated in "Live Aid: Rebuilding/Never Broken: Fulmont for Puerto Rico." The event included several organizations and sponsors raising funds for those impacted by Hurricane Maria. There was food from 24 local restaurants, live music and more. Amsterdam is home to many families who were originally from Puerto Rico and have family and roots there, as well as displaced families who relocated to the city.
The devastation in Puerto Rico continues to be on the minds of many Catholics in the Albany Diocese. Two months after Puerto Rico was slammed by back-to-back hurricanes, Catholic News Service reports that millions of island residents "still have no power and lack access to clean drinking water, refrigeration and other necessities."
That hits close to home for people like Chemise Cuevas and Lisette Stapleton.
Ms. Cuevas, the aftercare teacher at St. Kateri Tekakwitha School in Schenectady, helped her cousin, Evelyn [last name withheld], and Evelyn's three young daughters relocate from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania in October.
Mrs. Stapleton, a mental health social worker for St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, was born in Long Island but raised in Puerto Rico. What was intended to be a vacation to Puerto Rico in October turned into volunteer with the Red Cross there and bringing her elderly parents back to the Diocese to live with her.
PONCE TO PA.
Ms. Cuevas told The Evangelist that it had taken Evelyn four or five days after Hurricane Maria to get a cell phone signal and manage to call relatives in the United States. Evelyn reported from Ponce, the island's second-largest city, that there was no electricity. The family's food supply was limited and animals lay dead in the streets. Filling a car with gasoline meant waiting in line for nine hours.
"As a family, we decided it was best for her to come up here," Ms. Cuevas said. Relatives chipped in for plane tickets for Evelyn and her daughters -- ages eight, five and four -- but the family arrived with nothing but a couple of suitcases, the only possessions they had left.
Ms. Cuevas approached Tosha Grimmer, principal of St. Kateri School, to ask about aid. Ms. Cuevas was not surprised that the school and parish community responded with a deluge of clothing, books and toys.
"I can see eight garbage bags" of supplies in the school hallway, confirmed Ms. Grimmer, speaking with The Evangelist last week about the latest batch of donations. "People were very generous."
Ms. Cuevas expressed her gratitude for the help. Evelyn and her daughters are now living with Evelyn's sister in Pennsylvania, she said, and Evelyn is looking for secretarial work. The family has applied for food aid and Section 8 housing.
It's an overwhelming change, Ms. Cuevas noted. The children are enrolled in school, but they speak only Spanish, and the family has lost everything else that's familiar, as well.
Still, the aftercare teacher believes it was the best decision for her cousins to leave Puerto Rico. They're "a little sad, but they had to do what's best for the family," said Ms. Cuevas. "There's no help out there" on the island.
Meanwhile, Ms. Cuevas' aunt is still in Puerto Rico. The hurricane took the roof off her home. Ms. Cuevas said she's hoping all the donations being sent to Puerto Rico from around the world are actually getting to people in need.
'IT BROKE MY HEART'
As the only Spanish-speaking mental health therapist in her office at St. Mary's Healthcare in Amsterdam, Mrs. Stapleton said she's seeing a number of clients who are natives of Puerto Rico and are struggling with reactions to the disaster there.
"They're dealing with a lot of stuff," the social worker said.
That's also true of Mrs. Stapleton herself. She lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years of her youth and returns every summer to visit relatives and friends, including her parents.
Ironically, when Hurricane Maria ripped through the island, Mrs. Stapleton's 70-year-old mother had just rented another living space while her home was being cleared of an infestation of bees. All that's left of her house now is the floor, and a few plastic bins of photographs.
"She's starting from scratch," Mrs. Stapleton told The Evangelist, describing the vanished mango trees and other vegetation that once surrounded the home. "To go there and see nothing you had as a child -- it broke my heart."
Mrs. Stapleton had planned to fly down for a visit, but ended up volunteering with the Red Cross in Puerto Rico instead. She put her therapeutic skills to work meeting with people in the rural areas of Balneario Cerro Gordo, Santa Olaya and Barrio Nuevo, assessing them for depression and other health issues.
She wept as she told their stories: diabetics with blood sugar levels so high, meters couldn't read them, who would surely die soon without insulin...the elderly woman whose two adult daughters were both bedbound, one with spina bifida and the other with intellectual disabilities...the children with HIV or those removed from their families, living in facilities without enough food or diapers after the storms.
Everywhere, Mrs. Stapleton saw people's possessions piled by the road: televisions, furniture, beds. She met senior citizens sleeping on boards in their destroyed homes. She heard about a person dying of asthma and a woman was caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease and couldn't even understand that a hurricane had hit.
Fortunately, Mrs. Stapleton had had time before she left on her trip to talk with Rev. Rick Lesser -- pastor of her parish, Corpus Christi in Round Lake -- about her plans to volunteer. He asked her to speak at Masses and parishioners responded generously, donating about $9,000 for direct aid.
Five hundred dollars went to another parishioner's family in need, but Mrs. Stapleton took the rest with her to Puerto Rico. She bought batteries, water, paper plates and other supplies and labeled the boxes, "Please do not rob; it's for elderly people." The rest of the money, she distributed in $200 increments to people she met for necessities like groceries, gasoline and wood to cover holes in their roofs.
She also provided therapy for struggling people. One night, she prayed the Rosary for half an hour with people she grew up with, then played CDs of Latin music so everyone could dance and forget their pain for a while. When she learned her cousin had a working generator, she used a bit of money to buy some juice and keep it cold - a cool drink being a luxury most Puerto Ricans hadn't experienced in months.
When Mrs. Stapleton returned to the Albany Diocese in late October, she brought her mother and her 89-year-old father, who are divorced. Both are now living with Mrs. Stapleton, her husband and their 14-year-old daughter. Mrs. Stapleton's many other siblings remain in Puerto Rico.
The island hopes to have still-spotty electricity completely restored by May. Mrs. Stapleton will go back Jan. 1 to volunteer again.
She said that, while she credits Puerto Rico for its hard work on recovery so far, the process will mean more than just clearing streets and restoring power.
"The infrastructure is terrible," she explained. "They need really big reform, or this is going to happen again."