Fifteen SUNY Oswego students and a faculty team leader recently returned from Puerto Rico, where they repaired roofs as part of the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. Another group with several Oswego students and alumni will deploy on July 29.

Alesha Barrett, a May 2018 journalism graduate, took readers along as she described how the project put everyday small inconveniences into context in a post for Oswego's student blogging project:

"Being in Puerto Rico was beyond humbling for me," she wrote. "It allowed me to see that whenever I feel as though things are uncomfortable for me, there are people who are living through far more serious and uncomfortable hardships."

Despite the hardships experienced by those they encountered, Barrett said their hosts and people they met were friendly and hospitable, she said. "Nine months later Puerto Rico still remains in need of recovery, and yet, the people are so pleasant and welcoming," Barrett wrote. "Truly, a humbling experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world."

In an earlier entry, Barrett wrote of the first of three homes her team fixed during their time in Puerto Rico. The homeowner, an 80-year-old widow named Marta, shared her own story with the team:

"She lost her husband five years ago and currently lives alone. They were married for over 40 years and have two sons together. One of which lives in Puerto Rico and the other residing in Texas. She expressed that her husband did everything for her including building their home, so when he passed, it was very hard for her to adjust to living on her own. It was the first time in her life where she had to do things for herself."

The team worked with NECHAMA, the Jewish non-profit agency for national disaster preparedness, response and recovery, and enjoyed some homemade thanks. "Perhaps the highlight of the day was the home cooked meal we were prepared for lunch by our homeowner, Marta," Barrett explained early in her experience. "Marta prepared a delicious meal for us to eat (chicken, rice, and beans) to show her appreciation for our efforts to help her with her home."

Barrett and the students also earned another notable fan in SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson, who left an encouraging comment on Barrett's first blog entry.

"Alesha – a phenomenal story!" Chancellor Johnson wrote. "What a difference you have made in a life - thank you for posting and for spending part of your summer in Puerto Rico."

Strong teamwork

Joanne O’Toole, associate chair of curriculum and instruction in Oswego’s School of Education, served as team leader for a group of 29 students that spent two weeks in late June on the island devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. SUNY Oswego has been designated a lead campus in an effort that spans many SUNY and CUNY schools.

In addition to Barrett, Oswego representatives on that journey included Diana Aguero, Jonathan Arcese, Nicholas Carbone, Matthew Crumrine, Joseph DeVona, William Alonzo Garcia, Roger Greenidge Jr., Tatyanna Hiciano, Naomi Rodriguez Jose, Victoria Kammer, Ali Khan, James Tighe, Arisleydis Tavares and Shane Weir. 

Arcese also provided coverage of their activities through a #LakerTakeover of the @sunyoswego Instagram account.

Representing Oswego in the deployment starting July 29 are a father-and-daughter alumni duo in Howard and Olivia Botting, as well as Student Involvement Coordinator Maggie Rivera and Oswego students and/or recent graduates Brooke Ebersold, Rananjaya Gamage, Kimberly Smith and current Student Association President Eusebio Omar van Reenen. They will work with the All Hands and Hearts disaster response charity. Olivia Botting is leading a current #LakerTakeoverPR on the the @sunyoswego Instagram account.

In all, approximately 100 SUNY and CUNY students and nearly 20 skilled labor volunteers deployed to Puerto Rico on June 17, where they repaired 30 houses for residents in their two-week stay. This initial deployment of volunteers embedded with the non-profit rebuilding organizations All Hands and Hearts, Heart 9/11 as well as NECHAMA, to work on cleaning, restoring and rebuilding homes. Additional groups from SUNY and CUNY will travel to take part in this effort throughout the summer. UNICEF USA has committed $500,000 to support this effort. 

Led by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative launched on April 29.  According to a June 10 SUNY press release, “During the first phase, the Governor deployed a Tactical Assessment Team of state experts and labor, non-profit, philanthropic, and academic partners to evaluate reconstruction needs and to develop a comprehensive rebuilding roadmap for communities in need. The Assessment Team's findings are guiding the strategic deployment of approximately 500 SUNY and CUNY students, as well as skilled workers from the building and construction trades, throughout the summer.”