February 16, 2019

GOA Students Work for Incredible Change in Puerto Rico

Noah Kamens '20

For 13 years, GOA has offered a service trip to New Orleans, Louisiana for both Juniors and Seniors to attend. These delegations of students volunteered around New Orleans to help its people recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. This year, however, GOA decided to change the destination to Puerto Rico, an island just beginning its recovery from the fairly recent – and devastating – Hurricane Maria.

In the first week of December, twenty upperclassmen accompanied by three teachers set flight to San Juan as the first group to represent the Jewish Federation of MetroWest in Puerto Rico since Maria first struck. Within four days, the group was able to experience the beautiful scenery of San Juan, immerse themselves into its culture, and feel their impactful presence in Puerto Rico.
Although it's been over a year since hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, because the storm hit the islands main power source, poorer communities are still left without power and clean water. It took months after the hurricane for major cities to recover but many smaller communities are still in shambles.
On the first day of the trip, after touching down and eating lunch, the group explored historic San Juan. They were given the opportunity to see the ocean, purchase authentic Puerto Rican goods, and learn about the local attractions. Afterwards, they met other Jewish teens who belonged to the local JCC synagogue to light Hanukkah candles for the first night and bond.

Junior Noa Russo happened to know some of these teens from Camp Tel Yehudah and remembers being asked in a group chat to donate money to help rebuild the synagogue after its roof had blown off during the hurricane.
“I immediately donated, but I had never thought that a year later I would be sitting in that very synagogue in San Juan with my camp friend.”
“It was an incredible experience for me to see the progress that was made from when the synagogue was destroyed until now when it is almost completely rebuilt,” Russo said. “I feel so lucky to have been able to be with 19 of my school friends and 3 of my camp friends helping to rebuild this community.”
On the second day of the trip, the group was given their first hands-on opportunity to volunteer inside the homes.  They were split up into three groups, each going to a different house nearby to help make it more livable. The groups were then given different tasks based on the needs of each home, which consisted of deep cleaning, scraping paint off of  walls and ceilings, and repainting.
Though the end results were not perfect, the conditions in the homes that were visited were so poor that any amount help was greatly appreciated. Senior Maddie Herman was part of the group who went to a barely liveable home covered in trash and dirt that had large insects crawling out from behind every corner.
Though the work was incredibly difficult, Maddie Herman said that “it was a really fulfilling experience.”
After finishing at the houses, the group went to a local church that had converted a large, unused space into a Holocaust memorial that helped revealed Puerto Rico’s part in the Holocaust.
The group ended the day by returning to the JCC for dinner and having a meaningful Hanukkah gift exchange.
On the third day of the trip, the group partnered with the Nechama organization, a Jewish service that provides comfort and hope to communities drastically affected by disasters, to help them fix a disaster ridden home.
The house owner, Mary Lou, said, “Just [the group] showing up means that we haven’t been forgotten.”
She told the group that she was starting to lose hope because she hadn’t been offered help at all in the 14 months since the hurricane. The roofless home was left in shambles, completely damaged and covered in dirt with few salvageable items remaining. When the group arrived, they were split into smaller groups and immediately took to cleaning out the debris and wreckage.
“It felt as though we were all in a trance,” Junior Danielle Hodes said. “ The minute we arrived at the home we all worked without stop, determined to make some dent in what was a seemingly impossible task. And we did not stop until the entire top floor of the house was entirely cleared out. Five hours had passed but it felt like five minutes.”
Soon after beginning to work, Rekem found a small toy slingshot and showed it to Mary Lou and her husband.
“Her husband laughed as if he remembered using it when he was younger or with his kids. I just thought it was sad,” Rekem said. “The whole idea of one day losing all you have is so scary to think about.”
Together the group was able to clear out much of the upper level of the house, including removing rotting couches and rusty pieces of tin roofing so that the house could be  in a better position and could continue to be fixed.
Junior Ethan Landau said that “Volunteering with Nechama was a great experience. It allowed us to see both the destruction that was endured during the storm and the effect of people to help [them] recover from it.”
In total, although the group only volunteered for 5 hours, the 23 people from GOA along with the 4 from Nechama accumulated 135 work hours that otherwise may not have been available to Mary Lou and her husband. After volunteering, the group took to the beach to have some well-deserved fun and relax from the hard work they’d done over the course of the trip.
On the fourth and final day of the trip, the group took one last chance to see the beauty that Puerto Rico had to offer. They took a boat tour of an estuary where they learned about bird-watching and checking for clean water.
After the tour, the group headed back home after an incredible experience.
“We all knew we would have an incredible time,” junior Zece Brown said. “But we never would have been able to fully prepare for everything that was in store, both the beauty and the suffering.”

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