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A Dickens Tale: Volunteering on the roofs of Puerto Rico

Posted October 18, 2018 by Liza Frenette


As a CUNY Brooklyn College student majoring in kinesiology, Jamir Dickens is becoming familiar with studying the mechanics of body movements — but his knowledge was tested in a new way this past summer when he spent two weeks walking on the roofs of hurricane-damaged homes in Puerto Rico.

It’s a whole new way of moving when you’re up on the roof pouring concrete in the hot summer Caribbean sun, noted Dickens, who volunteered with a group of CUNY student volunteers. “We were spread out between four towns and we completed 20 roofs. It’s rewarding; it’s a rush,” he said.

He is used to hard work: he works full time as a classroom paraprofessional at PS 329 in Brooklyn as a member of the United Federation of Teachers, while going to college at night.

Dickens’ summer journey took place as part of the governor’s New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative. Many families have been displaced or are living in damaged, unsafe homes since Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, killing more than 3,000 people.

After two days of training from CUNY, Dickens said the experience was “hands on, as soon as we touched down.” They landed in San Juan and were housed in dorms at Universidad del Sagrado Corazon.

“One house — the entire second floor was gone. So we just made that the roof,” he said. Volunteers worked with non-governmental organizations. They patched roofs, ceilings and cracks with concrete and then painted them with sealants. Some groups used construction plywood to rebuild roofs and fix interior rooms.

“It’s a really sad story in Puerto Rico,” Dickens said. “The most challenging part was actually leaving. You’re invested, as a construction worker, to complete the mission.” But everywhere around him there was more work to be done; more homes with blue tarps instead of solid roofing.

Indoor work required wearing a hazmat suit, goggles and gloves, he said, because of mold.

He said families would bring out coffee or lunch to the workers.

“That was the humbling part. It’s difficult to talk about….” Dickens said, his voice trailing. He would find himself thinking ‘I know you have very little, I can see what you have, and you’re hustling to get food or treats for me?’

Dickens, who has been to Puerto Rico as a young boy and then again three years ago on vacation, has family in Puerto Rico: a great aunt, great uncle, and cousins.

“My family has been affected tremendously. It’s not really a good situation still."

As a NYSUT School-Related Professional, Dickens was one of 260 conference participants who raised $3,000 for the NYSUT Disaster Relief Fund, which provides money to union members affected by disasters.

Dickens’ life experience includes working as a paraprofessional at a pre-school for children with Autism, and working for AmeriCorps as a positive school climate coordinator at a school for at-risk students. He starting going back to college in 2017 through his union’s UFT education program.

Student volunteer work through the Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative will continue in Puerto Rico. This fall, the governor’s office announced a commitment to send 500 more CUNY and SUNY students and faculty, beginning at winter break, to repair and rebuild properties. A new disaster mental health initiative will also be launched with SUNY and CUNY public health and mental health faculty and graduate students participating to help train the trainers in Puerto Rico to help people cope with the trauma.


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