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Dominican Young Adults Help in Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

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Reflection by S. Gina Fleming, OP

During the week of July 16, 2019,  ten young people, who are members of Dominican Young Adults USA traveled to Puerto Rico to offer their time and talents to the people who had been most affected by the devastating hurricane. 

The Young adults were Eileen Connolly and Sal Ubaldini from the Molloy Chapter; Mary Elizabeth Dristle and Christina Maretzo from the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapter; Natalie Infante, Sinead Reilly and Nicolette Agresta from the Dominican College Chapter and Solanyi Rodriguez, Suheily Rodriguez Anamika Sharma Paudel from the Caldwell Chapter.  These young adults are part of the Dominican Youth Movement whose aim is to continue the tradition of preaching through word and action, using their own unique talents. 

Joining the Young Adults were two Dominican sisters, Pat Stringer, OP from the Caldwell Dominicans and Gina Fleming, OP from the Amityville Dominicans, who are mentors for the groups. 

During the week. The young people helped repair an old school (now an apartment complex), mulched coffee trees at a farm and visited an organic garden run by 16-year-old environmentalist.  The week began with our arrival on Tuesday afternoon into San Juan airport. After waiting to pick up our vehicle for the week, a 15 passenger van, we were escorted by one of our Dominican sisters from Puerto Rico to the retreat house we would call home for the week.  There were many stops along the way (lunch, grocery shopping, gas, etc) but we finally arrived in Mariaco at around 8:00 pm that evening. Mariaco is one of the most remote sections of the island of Puerto Rico and is located at the top of the mountain. Needless to say, it was a long, winding trip, especially at night, and most especially while driving a 15 passenger vehicle with 12 people and loads of luggage.  It will definitely be an experience I won’t soon forget!

The next morning we would head down the mountain to our work site in Bartollo, some 40 minutes away.  Much to their dismay, the students had to rise each morning (sometimes with some prompting) at 7:15 a.m., prepare their breakfast, make their lunch (which they needed to bring to the site each day), and be ready to leave by 8:15 am. Quite a challenge for young people who were on break …but they were real troopers and were ready to go. 

We arrived at our first work site early the next morning.  It was a school which had been occupied by 12 families that were displaced after the hurricane.  The school had been closed for over a year and with some help, the families had turned it into small apartments.  Though the families now had a roof over their heads, there was much to do in the way of fixing the place up.  

Because of the number of things that needed to be done the group was broken up into pairs to begin to tackle the tasks. At the site the students had the opportunity to engage in all types of work which included cleaning former classrooms (to be used for meeting spaces, playrooms for the younger children, and a storage room for donated items such as clothes, canned food, shoes, etc), painting the hallways, and walls of the outside of the building, weeding, raking, and mowing of the property, as well as planting new seedlings in the organic garden that was just begun. The young adults, many of whom had never met each other before this trip, began working alongside each other and hit it off right away.  Though it was extremely hot and exhausting at times, the work was done in a wonderful spirit of laughter and fun. 

In addition to the school site, we visited a well-known coffee grower on the mountain.  After spending some time learning the history of the area and explaining the trials of growing coffee on the island after the hurricane, the young people were brought up the mountain to see the actual coffee plants and assist the gentleman in covering the newly planted trees in mulch.  As a reward for their work, they came back down the mountain and enjoyed a fresh cup of coffee that began with beans, went to roasting, to the grinder and into the percolator, right in front of the students. Fresh, Fresh, Fresh! They all thoroughly enjoyed the fruits of their labor. 

On another occasion, we visited another school in Yauco that had been abandoned by the government but was taken over by a young 16yr old environmentalist.  Jose, along with some of his classmates, won a contest sponsored by NASA. His project “How to Grow Vegetables in Space” gained him a $25,000 prize from the federal government.  With the financial capital he has begun an organic farm on land that was thought totally unfertile. He spent a great deal of time speaking to the students about following their dreams, while showing them how he made his dream a reality.  He told the students’ “We need to do whatever is necessary to save our planet for future generations. This project is just a small beginning.” Needless to say, the students marveled at his enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and humanitarian way of thinking.  After planting their own coffee plants, we joined Jose and his family in a Spanish feast!

Every other night after dinner the young people gathered to pray and speak about their day. What or who touched them, and where might they have encountered God in their experience, a little theological reflection and contemplation exercise you might say.   As you might guess, the prayer and reflection were powerful each night. 

Different parts of the family (vowed religious, and Dominican Young Adults) worked together to make this week a positive experience for all. The students enjoyed their time on the island and in being with the people.  No one of us did it all, but all of us did our part. 

Of course our stay would not be complete unless we had some fun time on this beautiful island, so during the last two days of our stay we had the opportunity to stay in San Juan.  We were hosted by a wonderful group of Charity Sisters who couldn’t have been more hospitable. We were aware that there were protests everywhere but the sister’s helped us navigate the areas so as to stay safe.  So to end our time in Puerto Rico we went to one of the beautiful Puerto Rican beaches, as well as the wonderful Old City of San Juan. A fun time was had by all.

Soon it was time to say goodbye. Our week of volunteering was over and we prepared to leave the island. It was a good feeling knowing that we left the work sites, especially the make shift apartment complex, in better shape than when we arrived. It was also a good feeling knowing that all of us in our own small way assisted in “Continuing the Preaching ” in our own lives and the lives of those we met in Mariaco, Bartollo, Yauco, and San Juan.

We would like to thank all our sisters in Puerto Rico for their prayers, and assistance in arranging for our service trip to the island.  S. Lissie Aviles in particular spent a great deal of time and effort in preparing for our trip. GRACIOUS POR TODOS!


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