Maryland parish helps Puerto Ricans still rebuilding from hurricane

IMAGE: CNS photo/Alvin Baez, Reuters

By Wallice J. de la Vega

Puerto Rico (CNS) — Although Puerto Rico’s post-hurricanes coverage has
disappeared from the daily news cycles, Catholic workers have not forgotten the
fact that thousands in this Caribbean island are still in dire need of a
helping hand.

volunteers from St. Francis Builds, a program based in St. Camillus Catholic
Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, recently demonstrated its continued commitment
in Latin America. Its initial mission was to Guatemala in 2006.

Francis Builds brought its volunteers to Maunabo July 22-29. It is one of several
southeastern towns that received Hurricane Maria’s head-on impact last Sept.
20. Municipal authorities estimate 90 percent of Maunabo’s wooden structures
were damaged, many of them destroyed, in this mostly rural town of just over
11,000 residents.

this mission to Maunabo’s Calzada sector, St. Francis Builds teamed once again
with the Fuller Center for Housing, based in Americus, Georgia. The goal of the
seven-day mission was to repair roofs, finish cleaning indoor dangerous levels
of fungus remaining after hurricane flooding and paint houses.

is a rural, unplanned neighborhood of tightly built concrete and wooden houses
on a steep mountain side. Residents were not evacuated prior to Hurricane
Maria’s landfall.

Francis Builds was started by Franciscan Father Michael Johnson 12 years ago.
He served at St. Camillus for 15 years, including some time as pastor, before
being assigned to Boston three years ago.

was a chaplain at a safe house in Bolivia for six years, Father Michael said in
Spanish. “My heart is already Latino.”

Camillus parishioners Beth Hood and Pat Zapor were team leaders on this mission
to Maunabo. Both are longtime veterans of these kind of trips. Zapor’s most
recent mission was building roofs in Peru last summer.

first we did these all through Habitat (for Humanity) … because they arranged
housing, meals, transportation, everything,” said Zapor. “As we have
evolved over the years … we have done this through other groups like Fuller;
in Nicaragua we worked with Seeds of Learning, which builds schools and
community centers.”

Francis Builds has taken volunteers to serve in Guatemala, El Salvador,
Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru, Trinidad, Dominican Republic, Jordan and

the U.S., its missions have included projects in Houston, New Orleans, West
Virginia and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Groups also go on
weekend missions to Philadelphia to work at a soup kitchen the Franciscans
operate there.

all aspects of the Calzada missions is Millie Lebron, an energized volunteer
community leader who is a liaison between residents, government and visiting
groups. She made the Fuller connection through the Rev. Pablo Rivera, a Puerto
Rican ministering in Georgia.

the hurricane, he called me to inquire about my safety,” said Lebron.
“Having the information I gave him, he went to Fuller and asked about the
possibilities of helping me rebuild my house.” The organization agreed and
sent Ryan Iafigliola, director of International Field Operations, to interview
her and collect more data.

I got the idea to gather neighbors and explain what was going on and urged them
to ask for Fuller’s help,” she continued. “Many didn’t dare to do it, but
12 did, and so they were included!” she exclaimed. She was emotional but had a
big smile.

Cruz, 52, and his 98-year-old mother, Juana de Jesus, were among the
beneficiaries of this St. Francis Builds mission. Although their house was
built of solid concrete, its roof had been slightly leaking before Hurricane
Maria came. At their home, volunteers were repairing concrete damage to the
roof and applying liquid sealant.

roof cracked open,” said Cruz. “The hurricane was too strong. If that door
and windows hadn’t been reinforced with bamboo, all of them would’ve blown
away.” De Jesus said the flood’s muddy waters reached her while she was lying
in her bed in the dark. Three Calzada residents died during the hurricane’s
passing and several others in the aftermath.

Francis Builds’ volunteers were joined by some locals, like the Rev. Edgardo
Soto, a Calzada native, who is pastor of a Disciples of Christ church and
president of Fuller’s Puerto Rico chapter.

president, the director and I identify homes that need urgent help, and who
want it,” the pastor said. “Many cannot afford to leave their homes in
order (for them) to be repaired, because they don’t have the resources (to go
somewhere else).” His group, he said, “is ready to go anywhere in Puerto
Rico, wherever the Spirit takes us.”

St. Camillus parishioners Rafael and Christine Quinones of Bowie, Maryland, have
been bringing aid to Puerto Rico since flights became available after Hurricane
Maria. Rafael is a native of nearby Yabucoa.

have traveled with the nonprofit Global Solace of Beallsville, Maryland, and
Solar Power for Puerto Rico, a Native American, crowd-funded solar project of
Now!Solar company of Pasco, Washington. This work has focused on installing
solar-powered phone and internet points in town squares up in the mountains and
installing solar power systems in schools, libraries and nursing homes.

we go somewhere we want to teach people how to build (their own systems), to
empower them,” said Rafael. “And now we have two businesses doing it

of late June, an estimated 11,000 homes were still without public electricity
in Puerto Rico. The rest of the island has unstable service. Calzada received
power to homes more than eight months after Hurricane Maria. Street lights
remain out of order.

missions last up to three weeks. The center will sponsor 13 more missions to
Maunabo between August and mid-March, with a two-month break for the peak of
the hurricane season. The next one for St. Francis Builds is scheduled for Feb.

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Note: More information about the Fuller Center is available at

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