This guest blog was written by friends Sharon Gordetsky, Ph.D, and Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge and the first Child Advocate for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They are pictured above with a family social worker in Vega Alta.
For the past few years, the two of us have traveled to Puerto Rico together to escape the winter cold.
This year was different.
In the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, we weren’t sure if the trip would or could happen. After some conversations, we decided to make the trip, but we knew we wanted this trip to the Island to be about the people of Puerto Rico. We wanted them to know that people across the United States were still thinking about them; that these families were not forgotten in their toughest times.
Given that we both have a passion for helping youth, we immediately began researching ways to help kids through volunteer work. This is when we discovered The New York Foundling, which operates Head Start and Early Head Start programs across Puerto Rico and serves roughly 1,500 children and families. We reached out to get a list of items needed by the centers and kids in their care so we could begin planning what to bring with us on our travels.
We saw so much humanity and generosity from others prior to and during our trip. Sharon dedicated her birthday women’s lunch with friends to begin spreading awareness about our upcoming trip, and friends donated money to purchase the necessities. Even the salesperson at Sharon’s local hardware store gave her a discount on flashlights and donated the batteries.
The two of us set off for Puerto Rico in late January, carrying extra suitcases filled with supplies, including the flashlights and batteries, plus paper plates and cups, crayons and paper, clothing, and toys. JetBlue actually waved all of the extra baggage fees that would have applied, and we later gave the money saved to families we encountered in Puerto Rico, who told us of their kids having nightmares after the hurricanes. The hotel we stayed at, ESJ Azul, donated extra blankets, pillows, linens, and towels for us to distribute to the families we met.
Our time spent visiting Foundling staff and families in Puerto Rico was incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. It was heart-wrenching to hear parents asking Sharon questions like, “What do I say to my kids who are scared when it rains?” The people in Puerto Rico have faced so much hardship since September, but during our visit, we saw how strong they have been and continue to be in the face of tragedy.
When we visited The Foundling’s Head Start centers, we saw children who were able to recapture a feeling of normalcy because of the classrooms and staff, and they were being fed three healthy meals a day. Given that so many of their families remain without electricity, this is crucial. The children’s play activities in the classroom also provided a way for them to express their inner-most feelings and fears about Hurricane Maria. The Head Start staff, many also remain without electricity, are devoted to the health and development of these young children and their families. It was a pleasure to meet and spend time with these smart, generous professionals.
We encourage anyone to visit Puerto Rico if you have any inclination to help, and bring supplies along with you. The island needs tourists to help revive their tourism economy and boost the number of available jobs. When you do go visit this beautiful island, do what we did and ask friends and family to contribute. It’s amazing to see the outpouring of love and support from your community!
If you’re interested in volunteering or donating goods to Puerto Rico, please reach out to our Development department via email. You can also make a gift online to our Puerto Rico relief fund. Thank you for your ongoing support.