February 05, 2020

Union steps up to help members in Puerto Rico after devastating earthquakes

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
disaster relief
Caption: AFT President Randi Weingarten (right) and AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus (second from right) comfort an educator whose home collapsed after earthquakes struck Puerto Rico. Photo by Matthew Jones for AFT.

Teacher Maria Velez saved money for decades to be able to buy a house. Six months ago, she accomplished that dream and moved into a new home with her son and daughter. On Jan. 7, an earthquake destroyed her house and all her family’s new belongings.

Velez managed to rescue her children and the family dog. The next day, her son received orders to deploy to Iraq. Earthquakes continued to rumble on the island, crushing many more homes, businesses and schools. Like many others, Velez is sleeping in a tent near her former house.

Union leaders, staff and volunteers are on the ground helping Velez and other colleagues from the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), the teachers union. They are meeting regularly with school and government officials to determine next steps.

Support includes personal and classroom supplies, along with stipends to help members find housing. The American Federation of Teachers is shipping large tents to the island; AFT estimates that up to 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s 856 schools have been rendered structurally unsound due to the earthquakes.

“We spoke with AFT members – teachers – who want to return to their jobs of teaching and caring for children but have no idea if they’ll have a school to go back to this year,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who visited the island.

NYSUT and its members are supporting residents with supplies and with donations to the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund. The AFL-CIO has pledged to buy desks, chairs and easels.

“The continued generosity of NYSUT members for the educators and students of Puerto Rico is reflected in the more than $11,500 that has been donated to the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund since the first earthquake struck the US territory on Jan. 7,” said Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer. “In addition to direct outreach, NYSUT and its members have donated more than $40,000 to assist the AFT's Puerto Rico relief efforts.”

Union responders are also making “Go Bag” backpacks for teachers with emergency First Aid kits, water, flashlights, and folders of students’ names in case an earthquake affects another school and they all have to bolt.

“Children need to be in school. We want some normalcy and the opening of the schools would help with that,” said Evelyn DeJesus, on her second trip to the island in a month. A native of Puerto Rico, DeJesus is executive vice president of the AFT, a NYSUT Board member and United Federation of Teachers vice president.

Union volunteers and staff have been walking through neighborhoods to hand out forms to people who need help. A committee meets each week and uses the forms to determine the amount of each stipend to be awarded by using a rubric based on family size and damage to the home, explained Adriana O’Hagan, an assistant to DeJesus.

She explained that the government is marking homes according to the level of damage they have sustained. A red x means the home is uninhabitable and no one is allowed to go in; orange means residents can go in to retrieve belongings but they cannot stay; green means residents can go in the home. However, O’Hagan said, if a “green” house is neighbored by a “red” house, the inhabitants cannot go inside because of danger of collapse.

On their first trip in January, DeJesus and O’Hagan brought 14 suitcases of feminine hygiene products donated by the statewide union.

“NYSUT was amazing,” said O’Hagan. “It was just amazing how appreciative the women were.”

Many unions are coming together to provide help — from the Seafarers International Union working to get donated supplies to Puerto Rico – to teachers helping other teachers.

“NYSUT was the first union to pledge donation to Puerto Rico,” O’Hagan said.

Support Relief Efforts. Donate to NYSUT's Disaster Relief Fund.

evelyn dejesus
"When we got here there was another earthquake," says AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus (center). "People are afraid and sleeping outside due to fear of getting hurt. The people are desperate for help... Despite all that is happening we are focused and ready to work and support."

As you know, Puerto Rico has endured a series of earthquakes over the past couple of weeks that have been devastating to the island, which is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

NYSUT has been in touch with AFT Executive Vice President, NYSUT Board of Director and UFT VP for Education, Evelyn DeJesus, who is in Puerto Rico assisting with efforts.

Evelyn has expressed the dire need to help the people of Puerto Rico.

Please consider contributing to the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund to help us provide resources to those in need of assistance.

Donate Online

Visit nysut.org/disasterrelief.

Donate by Check

Make your check payable to "NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund" and mail to: NYSUT Headquarters, Attn: Disaster Relief, 800 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, New York 12110. Please note 'Puerto Rico' in the memo line.

About the Fund

The NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund (EIN: 11-3761261) is an IRS registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. Your contribution goes directly to provide assistance to those in need.