Yesterday, my husband and I ran a Puerto Rico hurricane relief drop-off center in our community.
I read once that “we are all interconnected in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves,” in a book by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
Yesterday, I finally understood what he meant.
FIVE MILLION ISLAND HEARTS
Five million Puerto Ricans live in the mainland United States. After Hurricane María passed, not one of us
We all knew thing were bad back home. But we didn’t know how bad.
By Sunday—five days after the storm—I still hadn’t been able to reach my family. I refused to give into despair.
A post appeared on my Facebook feed announcing that two Atlanta restaurants were collecting supplies to send to the Island, Buen Provecho and Porch Light Latin Kitchen. They were coordinating with PREP Atlanta and Cuchifritos Eatery to find a cargo flight and load it up with supplies. They had already been successful at shipping water and canned food.
I wanted to cry. I had found my people. The get-it-done people. This is Puerto Ricans at their very best. We get shit done.
“I think we will need the boy’s SUV’s,” I told my husband on Monday as we started to plan a community drop-off event for the following Saturday.
The head of the Norcross Discovery Garden, Deb Harris, let us use the garden as the official drop-off location. With it’s bright-colored flowers and raised beds bursting with ripe crops, this was the perfect location.
I posted a call for supplies on the community board, Nextdoor Norcross, thinking only a few people would show up. We would load the back of our cars then drive the supplies to one of the main drop-off locations.
We were wrong. So very wrong.
One post, got shared and reposted. I spent the week fielding calls, emails, texts and social media messages.
By Thursday, it became clear we were going to need a truck and volunteers.
A lady whom I’ve never met, Jessica Granese, offered to come to our house and start the sorting process. She also bought dozens of boxes and packing material. She was a blessing!
By Friday, the entire carport of our home was full of supplies and we still had the event on Saturday.
Our neighbors came over to help us sort through the mountain of boxes, pack and label supplies. It was a tiny preview to the following day.
THE WEB OF KINDNESS
On Saturday, I showed up to pick up a U-Haul truck at 8am. I started the engine, got the truck moving but had to stop. There was a horrible screech coming from the front wheel. It quickly became clear the truck was going nowhere. I frantically called my husband.
“There are two people here that have a trailer,” he told me.
“Who?” I asked.
“They live in town. I don’t know who they are but they can help,” he said.
I learned later that morning their names were Greg and Meg. They will never know how much that small act of kindness meant to me in that moment of desperation.
I got out of the U-Haul and walked over to the counter, where a small-frammed middle-aged woman had given me the keys to the truck just moments earlier. The conversation went something like this:
ME: “I need another truck.”
LADY: “I don’t have another truck.”
ME: “What about the one parked out back?”
LADY: “Someone else reserved it.”
ME: (Starts having an apocalyptic meltdown in front of the glass passthrough window) “I’m not leaving without that truck.”
Ten minutes later, I was driving the truck home.
When I got there, a group of community volunteers from the City of Norcross were waiting to load up everything in our carport. The City’s Director of Public Works, Utilities and Parks, Mary Beth Bender, had sent them over to help. Greg and Meg were also there with their trailer.
Again, I had to fight back tears. This was beyond anything I imagined.
We loaded up the truck and headed over to the garden where the supplies were already piling up. It was 8:50 a.m. The drop-off was scheduled to begin at 9.
A line of cars began to form almost immediately after we arrived. More volunteers seemed to manifest out of thin air. I can’t remember their names, but I know we will always be connected by this beautiful web of kindness.
At 10 a.m. two things happened:
-The truck we had rented was already full and we still had two hours to go. Two amazing volunteers— Beth Tynan and Laura Nall— offered to go get a second truck.
-I took a bathroom break. This is significant because I finally had a moment to check my phone. There was one news alert: Trump says of Puerto Rico recovery efforts,”They want everything to be done for them.” I blinked a few times as I read on, swallowing down a wave of bile and nausea. I deleted the alert, washed my hands and took a good look in the mirror. The night before I had heard San Juan Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz Soto, say, “this is not a time for distractions.” I repeated her words as I walked out of that bathroom.
When I returned to the garden, there was a new line of cars waiting to drop-off supplies. There were more volunteers. More supplies waiting to be sorted and packed. The second truck had arrived and needed to be loaded. A family had driven from Toccoa, GA (an hour away!) with a truck full of supplies. They couldn’t bring everything they had, they told me. They would have to rent a bigger truck to move the rest.
This was no time for distractions indeed. The web of kindness just kept growing.
RUNNING OUT OF SPACE
We finished packing and loading around 1 p.m. We drove to PREP Atlanta, where dozens of volunteers were receiving donations, then sorting, packing and labeling them so they could be shipped.
“We are at capacity here,” someone told us. “Sofía will need to figure this out.”
I smiled wide at the mention of Sofía’s name. I knew exactly who she was even though we had never met.
Earlier in the week, Atlanta grassroots organizer Sofía Arroyo, and I had exchanged texts and a phone call about cargo flight logistics. Over the phone, her spirited voice full of the optimism I love about the women of my Island, gave me hope. She was part of my get-it-done people. Now, standing in front of this woman I couldn’t help but smile and give her a hug.
We formed a caravan and drove to a new storage facility where the grueling work of unloading started. More people began showing up with trucks full of supplies they had collected. A human chain formed to sped up the work. There were people of all ages including children, a man with a prosthetic leg, people wearing #Pa’lantePuertoRico t-shirts. They spoke English and Spanish and that in-between lingo we call Spanglish.
The web of kindness was at work. It was connecting us a deeper level. Names seemed irrelevant.
PA’LANTE PUERTO RICO
Pa’lante literally means moving forward. It’s a contraction of the Spanish words para and delante.
The first time I spoke to my Mami over the phone six days had passed since Hurricane María ravaged the Island. Tears of joy streamed down my face at the sound of her sweet voice. I felt my heart pour itself through the phone line and touch hers.
My mom’s main concern was letting us know that our family was safe and that we didn’t need to worry.
“Estamos bien,” she told me in an uplifting voice. A short phrase that carries a lot of meaning in Puerto Rican speak. I would define it as “we will make it through this, we are resilient people.”
It’s true that the Island may never be the same again. I have heard from friends already planing to move to the mainland U.S. in the coming weeks as a result of the devastation. They will have to leave everything they know behind and start from nothing.
But there is also a deeper truth. That in the face of such destruction, we have reached out to each other with hearts full of compassion. We have relied whole-heartedly on the kindness of strangers. We have prayers with hearts full of devotion and faith. In the last few days, I have seen the truth of humanity—that we exist in a web of kindness from which it is impossible to separate ourselves. Anything else is a distraction.
A thousand million thank you’s to everyone who donated and volunteered at Saturdays’ event. You are too many to name, but our hearts will forever be connected by this infinite web of kindness.
HOW TO VOLUNTEER IN ATLANTA:
PREP Atlanta, Buen Provecho and Porch Light Latin Kitchen need volunteers to organize, store and prepare supplies for shipping. To help visit PREPATL.com
Atlanta volunteers are working with UnidosPorPuertoRico.com If you wish to help, you can make a donation on their website.
DELTA SHIPPING SUPPLIES:
Here are instructions on how individuals can use Delta’s program to ship relief supplies.