October 03, 2017

Hurricane Maria meets Mohonasen’s Maria

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
suitcases for san juan
Caption: A group of three travelers returning to Puerto Rico from Schenectady were being allowed to take 10 suitcases each filled with relief supplies - and the Mohonasen Teachers Association was ready to help. Photo provided.

Turns out, Spanish teacher and Mohonasen Teachers Association president Maria Pacheco is a pretty good packer.

She’s not going anywhere, by the way. But she has been very, very busy packing in order to help families that have lost their homes on the American island of Puerto Rico to the thunderous Hurricane Maria. Pacheco discovered that a group of three travelers returning to Puerto Rico from Schenectady were being allowed to take 10 filled suitcases each. She had two days to help.

Pacheco mobilized members of the local teachers union, who contributed supplies such as flashlights, batteries, dry food, paper goods, gloves, lanterns and baby wipes. She was able to fill four suitcases within two days on behalf of the MTA.

“Everyone just sprung into action. They didn’t bat an eye,” she said. After finding out about the unexpected opportunity to help, she spoke to her board, made up fliers, and informed teachers the next morning about the suitcase project. That night, there were open houses at the middle and high schools, and teachers came back to school loaded with supplies for the suitcases.

suppliesPacheco didn’t stop with the efforts of the TA. When she told her salsa dancing and cooking classes why she couldn’t make group, they went shopping instead.

“They filled three suitcases that night. On the way home from work, I picked up filled suitcases at people’s houses,” she said.

“This was something tangible. It was something they could put their fingers on, to help,” Pacheco said of the responders, who were eager to help at least some of the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans in crisis.

“I was like tearful. I was feeling hopeless,” Pacheco said. Her good friend, community member Lynnette Rodriguez Stec, had parents, grandparents and other family members in Juana Diaz whom she had not heard from. She did not know if they had survived. Then, through ham radio contact, they finally learned days later that they were alive. Their homes had been severely damaged or totally destroyed except for one cement building, where Stec’s parents live; everyone was hunkered down there.

“It was like the Big Bad Wolf,” said Pacheco. Hurricane Maria was unable to blow that one down.

Stec’s niece, Sol, had been traveling in the Dominican Republic with two friends, Jorge and Melvin, when Hurricane Maria struck their homes in Puerto Rico. They were unable to return home and could not afford to stay longer in the Dominican Republic. They flew to New York, staying with family in Yonkers and then with Sol’s aunt, Rodriguez Stec. When they received a phone call from Delta Airlines that they could fly back to Puerto Rico last Saturday, Sept. 30, Rodriguez Stec was able to convince airline representatives to extend their Sept. 29 deadline by one day to allow Puerto Rico passengers to fly home with 10 suitcases a person.

Rodriguez Stec contacted Pacheco and also sent out a message to colleagues on a social email system at Union College, where she works as an administrative assistant, asking for help to donate suitcases and the survival items necessary to fill them.

All told, 27 suitcases were donated and filled with donated supplies.

“Her house was Grand Central,” said Pacheco. Each suitcase was emptied and then refilled to be sure each one had an even amount of necessary supplies. Suitcases were packed for residents in the three different towns where the travelers were from, as well as for shelters.

“There are 78 municipalities in crisis for food and power,” Rodriguez Stec said of her homeland. “No one is allowed out between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m.”

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Long lines in Puerto Rico for resources and shelter. Photo by Lynette Rodriguez Stec.

There are thousands of containers in port in Puerto Rico with food and supplies, but most have not been distributed to people due to problems with transportation. There is a shortage of fuel and of truck drivers. Roads and bridges have been wiped out by the hurricane.

“Many NYSUT members and the students they serve have families in Puerto Rico whose lives have been upended by Hurricane Maria’s destruction,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “Victimized, too, were our colleagues on the island who are represented by the American Federation of Teachers, NYSUT’s national affiliate.”

Meanwhile, NYSUT members continue to generously donate money to help the victims of Hurricane Maria.

AFT President Randi Weingarten is asking for people to sign a petition in support of help for Puerto Rico.