By Carlotta Mohamed
When Kristen Cheung of Bayside traveled to Puerto Rico in August to help rebuild homes damaged by the wrath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, it was definitely an eye-opening experience.
“It’s one thing to actually hear about it and see videos and photos,” said Cheung, 19. “I remember one woman who didn’t have electricity from September through May, and she’s an elderly lady who lives alone. I don’t know how I would be able to survive through that.”
Cheung traveled to the mountainous region of Barranquitas in Puerto Rico, from Aug. 5-18 along with 12 CUNY students who volunteered for the “NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative,” launched in April by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Under Cuomo’s initiative, approximately 500 SUNY and CUNY student volunteers and skilled trade workers from the building and construction trades were deployed in June to work with nonprofit organizations on the ground to help rebuild homes across Puerto Rico, according to the office of Gov. Cuomo.
A total of 196 students from the City University of New York have traveled to the island since June on two-week trips to fix ravaged homes, repairing doors, windows and roofs and removing mold.
Cheung, a neuroscience major at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, spent two weeks building roofs for damaged houses with 60 members from the volunteer organization “All Hands and Hearts,” a nonprofit founded in 2005 to provide relief to residents in areas affected by natural disasters in the United States and abroad.
“They were one of the first volunteer nonprofits to actually ask the people what they needed and the response was roofs for their homes,” said Cheung. “We stayed with them and they were extremely hospitable. They treated you like family, cooking lunch and giving us coffee.”
Cheung worked everyday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. building houses, often in the hot sun.
Although Cheung didn’t have any construction experience, she received on-the-job training using tools such as circular saws and building roofs using harnesses.
According to Cheung, 72 roofs were completed by the nonprofit and 110 families were helped.
“They did a survey and homeowners would give feedback on how we did,” said Cheung. “None of them had anything bad to say. We called about 15 people every few days and they were all really kind and grateful to the organization for helping them out.”
While in Barranquitas, Cheung connected with the homeowners sharing stories with each other about their families, and the hardships of locals living in Puerto Rico after the hurricanes.
“What we saw was completely different from New York City. Everything was so natural,” Cheung said. “There are so many colors in San Juan, but in Barranquitas so many trees and mountains. And it was a bit humid and rainy and it was just very open.”
Cheung lived with about 30 people in one room with limited access to WiFi, no cell service, cold showers, and many bugs, she said.
“I think most people would turn away from the idea of actually going there and working eight hours under the boiling sun, because we were on roofs it was extremely hot,” said Cheung. “The people who I met were so special because they were willing to give up their comfort to help others.”
After spending two weeks with the families at Barranquitas learning about Puerto Rican culture and traveling with locals around the area, Cheung had formed an everlasting bond with the people and CUNY students she met on the trip.
“By the end of it all we were all really emotional about leaving,” said Cheung. “Nothing at home really mattered when we were there. We all had a common goal. We all just wanted to help out and do the right thing… we were focused on building homes and spending time with each other.”
Cheung said she plans on returning to Puerto Rico sometime in the future.
“I really feel like it made me grow as a person,” said Cheung. “I guess I reevaluated how privileged and well off I am to be able to have all of my basic needs met. “It really opened my eyes to how different life can be, so I’m really grateful for that and for this trip.”
Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmoha