A Grass-Roots Effort to Help Puerto Rico

Organizer George Gonzalez and volunteer Felicia Gil stand outside of A&G Child Care, where they collected donations all weekend to send to Puerto Rico. (Photo by Willa Rubin for Voices of NY)

After Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, Bronx resident George Gonzalez wanted to help. He asked his staff at A&G Early Child Care Community Network if they could host a supply drive, and help collect relief supplies to ship to San Juan.

Gonzalez printed 2,000 flyers and distributed them around the community with his volunteers. He thought that maybe 20 people would stop by with donations on Sept. 23 and 24, since the call for donations was announced with short notice. But by Sunday morning, the office was packed with supplies.

“There were 300 people,” he said. “I was amazed. This weekend was a blessing. Now, we have no more room to put things.”

Gonzalez, who is deputy executive director of the child care site, which operates in the Tremont section of the borough, said Red Cross representatives in the Bronx will pick up the supplies and ship them to San Juan to be distributed to victims.

Gonzalez immigrated from Puerto Rico in the 1970s, and served on Community Board 6 for 30 years. He said he spoke to his sister in Puerto Rico right after the storm for about two minutes on Facebook. “Communication is still handicapped,” he said.

This isn’t his first time organizing a supply drive after a natural disaster. He organized one after an earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972, and another after Puerto Rico was hit by a hurricane in 1985.

Gonzalez said it’s important to send supplies, not just money. “It’s easier to get supplies to people directly than money,” he said.

One of the first donors this weekend was another Puerto Rican native, George Rabel, who runs a bodega next door to the A&G building. Rabel, a veteran who fought in the Korean War, brought five cases of supplies from his store. “My first country is Puerto Rico. My second is here,” he said.

Volunteer Felicia Gil facilitating a supply dropoff on Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo by Willa Rubin for Voices of NY)

Rabel said he wasn’t surprised at the community response to Gonzalez’s plea. “Gonzalez works hard,” said Rabel. “He speaks people’s language. People respond to him.”

Orlando Rosario dropped by on Sunday to bring donations after serving as an usher at his local church. He said he was going back to BJ’s Wholesale Club to pick up more. “Everyone is doing something,” he said. “Even if you have nothing. You do it out of good faith.”

Yvette Lopez, an assistant principal at P.S. 66, said, “I brought cases of water, batteries, anything that can help. It’s always important to help people in need. We’re humans and it’s our responsibility to help.”

In recent days, larger relief efforts, featuring politicians from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and drawing celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, have been announced. And in the Bronx, City Council member Salamanca and state Sen. Ruben Diaz are each planning supply drives. But the effort undertaken by Gonzalez and his volunteers shows how strongly and how swiftly a small community can respond. Gonzalez said if his volunteers can take the time next weekend, he’ll do it again.

“The last hurricane brought Puerto Rico down, but this one brought it down even more,” Gonzalez said. “The water demolished everything – it’s gonna take years to build it back.”

Willa Rubin is a member of the 2018 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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