Puerto Rico: Sunset Park Lends a Hand

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Puerto Rico: Sunset Park Lends a Hand

El Grito de Sunset Park’s temporary drop-off center on Fourth Avenue had locked the door for the day. Still, people kept knocking.They wanted to bring batteries, Advil, toilet paper, trash bags, water filters—for Puerto Rico. Three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit there, the South Brooklyn advocacy group was still taking in donations for emergency relief.

But it wasn’t just a quick drop-off. A pediatric occupational therapist wanted to talk about getting women prenatal vitamins. “They have to be the ones with DHA,” she kept saying.  A volunteer who used to work for the Red Cross came by to sign up for his next shift. From the back of the room, the sound of packing tape being ripped from its dispenser punctuated the conversations.

What’s going on right now in Puerto Rico—bad water, no electricity, bad cell phone service—was on everyone’s mind. But Jason de Aguilar, 35, one of the co-founders of El Grito in 2002, said, “We’re seeing this as a long-term effort. It’s not just the emergency relief. It’s the long-term commitment to re-build. I want to keep this going.”

Sunset Park has a stake in Puerto Rico. After all, Hispanics make up 44 percent of of the neighborhood—and 12,000 of them are of Puerto Rican descent, according to the 2015 Census. Eddie Santiago, 53, Director of Operations at El Grito, says he wasn’t born in Puerto Rico, but “Puerto Rico was born inside me.” The places where relatives live easily rolls off the tongues of all the donors. San Juan. Arecibo.Mayagüez.

As emergency relief begins to get distributed throughout the island, the long-term challenges are coming into clearer view.  According to The New York Times, “It could take months, even years, for parts of the island and its 3.4 million residents to recover from the storm, which destroyed much of its electrical grid and left millions without running water or reliable mobile phone service.” Will there be an adequate Congressional relief bill? Puerto Rico was already carrying serious debt, and tourism—which accounts for some 60,000 jobs on the island—is going to take a serious blow.

Carlos Menchaca is the New York City Council Member for the 38th District in Brooklyn, which includes Sunset Park. According to David Estrada, 56, who serves as his Director of Communications, the councilman is concerned about a “sustained effort that is intelligent to support the people of Puerto Rico.” Their District Office, a sun-filled space decorated with colorful art courtesy of P.S. 105, often welcomes community members to discuss housing, schooling, and other needs.

It has been involved in identifying what supplies are best to donate and where people can bring them, including El Grito de Sunset Park and two nearby fire stations. But, as Estrada begins to talk about the long-term, his voice rises, “Think of the discontinuity the hurricane caused. Your child loses a year and a half of school. What would you do?”  As one weapon against such long-term problems, he points to programs like the one for NYC employees that allows sustained giving through payroll deductions (the program allows for one-time gifts, too).  Yet, as the conversation continues, the pressing needs of the immediate situation, especially in more rural communities, keep drawing him back.  “Did you know that UPROSE is asking for donations of bicycles?” he asks.

UPROSE, on 22nd Street in Sunset Park, is Brooklyn’s oldest Latino organization, founded by Puerto Rican activists in the Civil Rights era. Going well beyond bicycles, they are sponsoring a petition to lobby Congress for “large-scale, just recovery and relief” for Puerto Rico. The petition also calls for the permanent lifting of the Jones Act, which would provide the free movement of relief and goods “for an indefinite period.” (A temporary waiver of the Jones Act expired on October 8.)

This is the ping-pong of disaster recovery: The heart wants to give something, especially something tangible, right now; the mind wants to figure out the best solutions for the long haul. This weekend, St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church on Fourth Avenue will join this back-and-forth narrative again. The church has already served as a drop-off center for donations. Now, waiting for the next phone call from Puerto Rico, waiting for the next weather report for the island, many of its 1,500 to 1,800 parishioners will give money in a special collection for Puerto Rico and offer up their prayers.

Photo courtesy of El Grito de Sunset Park

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