PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL
Justin Fitzgerald and Gavan Duffy measure drywall before cutting and installing it.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE HIGH SCHOOL Justin Fitzgerald and Gavan Duffy measure drywall before cutting and installing it.
A year after devastating hurricanes blew through Puerto Rico and Houston, the news cameras have stopped showing the destruction. The damage, however, is still far from repaired, and students from St. John’s College High School in Washington and Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Takoma Park have not forgotten about their neighbors in need.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, 2017, the St. John’s community raised $3,500 at their opening football game to help with relief efforts. Since the school saw how important it was to the students to help out, they decided to add a trip to Houston onto their roster of summer service trips, which also included Walls, Mississippi; Browning, Montana; and Camden, New Jersey.

“As Americans, we all have a short attention span. People forget,” said Justin Fitzgerald, a junior at St. John’s. “At the beginning, everyone was wanting to help,” but by the time the group of eight St. John’s students got to Houston in early June, there was almost no one left trying to help, he said.

When the group arrived, they noticed that every house had a truck or a sign out front indicating that there was work being done, and every street had a large dumpster. Once they walked inside the houses, the damage from the flooding was even more evident.

The 14 students from Don Bosco Cristo Rey who traveled to Puerto Rico had a similar experience.

Cesar Cisneros, a senior at Cristo Rey, said he wanted to go on the trip so he could see firsthand how people had been affected by Hurricane Maria, which tore through the island on Sept. 20, 2017. Since he recently moved to the United States from El Salvador, he said he and his family know, “what is presented here in the United States is not exactly a reality of what is happening in other places in the world.”

“If you don’t experience it firsthand, you won’t understand how it is affecting residents” of the places where tragedies are happening, he said.

Just recently, on Aug. 28, Puerto Rico’s governor raised the official death toll of Hurricane Maria from the original 64 to nearly 3,000, to include those who died in the aftermath of the storm, which left many people devastated and without power for months.

Vanesa Thomas, a senior at Cristo Rey, recalled how, “the first thing I saw when the plane was landing were these blue tarps on the houses.”

They soon learned that those blue tarps were what The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had given the families as temporary roofs.

“I thought, ‘That is not very temporary if they are still up and it has been almost a year,’” she said. “I saw clear a image that there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Before the trip, the group of students did a lot of fundraising, such as dress down days at the school, to cover the majority of their travel costs as well as money for supplies and donations. In the end, they had $3,000 after the cost of travel to buy supplies and donate to the communities they were serving.

While in Puerto Rico, they helped families with painting, gardening, moving in new furniture, disposing of things that had water damage and picking up trash in the neighborhoods.

“It was a life-changing experience,” said Cisneros. “…The amount of grief and desolation felt in so many of the families was measurable…you could see it in their faces.”

Frances Santiago, the Spanish language department chair at Cristo Rey, is originally from Puerto Rico and was one of the chaperones who accompanied the students on their trip. Soon after Hurricane Maria hit the island, Santiago reached out to the Salesians in Puerto Rico, because Don Bosco Cristo Rey is a Salesian school. They set up this trip, and while they were there, the students also had a chance to help out with the summer camp happening at the Salesian school where they were staying.

“I have always wanted to do this with my students. It was kind of a dream come true for me. And it was especially important for me to take the students that we have here at Don Bosco,” she said. “A lot of times our students are receiving service from other people and to see them be able to give as well was really powerful for them.”

Santiago said in a lot of ways her home island has stayed the same, but in other ways it was different. She noted that every day, an average of 78 Puerto Ricans leave the island with no intention of returning.

“There was this sense of exhaustion. People were just tired. And it just comes out in the ways that they don’t go out any more…Now every time it rains, before it rains people go and stockpile food,” she said. “…But at the same time, it was the same level of hospitality that I was expecting. The families that we worked with – the community was really poor – but they would go out of their way to find ways to connect with us.”

All of the students on the trip were from Latin American countries, so there was no language barrier between them and the families whose homes they were working on. Cisneros said the trip was somewhat nostalgic for him, reminding him what life in El Salvador had been like.

“We know the conditions a lot of these families may have gone through given our background,” he said. “A lot of us come from low-income families, so we could relate a lot.”

Jasmine Flores Hernandez, a junior at Cristo Rey, said in addition to improving their homes, “we created a bond with them.”

Santiago said she was particularly impressed by how attuned the students were to the social justice aspect of what was happening in Puerto Rico.

“Because their families come from countries like Puerto Rico, our students were all concerned with the justice piece of it and it just really struck me to hear these students say, ‘This is unfair; this is not right; our government should be doing more,’” she said.

While they are not yet old enough to vote, they were aware of the fact that their voices still mattered, and were concerned with “being able to leverage the privileges they do have on behalf of other people,” Santiago said.

“This was the first time I had been working with teenagers saying, ‘I have more voice than these people and that is something I can use for good,’” she said.

In Houston, the group from St. John’s worked on the house of a man named Jacob, who is originally from Israel and had lived in his house since he moved to the United States about 20 years ago. He lost one of his dogs and all of his cars in the storm.

His house is located in a low-lying plane, and since the levees broke sooner than the city had initially told them they would, he did not have an opportunity to leave. His home held six feet of water for several weeks.  

While the group was there, they helped put up drywall, covered the seams of the drywall and sanded it to prepare it for painting. Fitzgerald said he was struck by seeing a table in the bathroom that had a hot plate and a toaster oven, because he realized that is what they had been using for their kitchen for a year.

“A lot of my problems at home are not as big as I think they are…it made me put in perspective my problems,” said Erica Patton, a senior at St. John’s. “It made me think there are a lot of people who have worse problems than me that I should be helping.”

The group worked with an organization called Experience Mission, which provides these repair services to those who can’t afford to do them on their own. People from that organization taught them how to put up dry wall and how to spackle, so they could carry out their work on the homes.

On the last day of their trip, the group served in a soup kitchen in Houston called Loaves and Fishes. The group got there an hour early, and there was already a line of people waiting,

“We saw Houston’s poverty firsthand,” said Fitzgerald.

Patton was struck by how surprised one of the men was when she stopped to introduce herself and ask for his name. She realized that on the streets, people often pass by them, but “the one thing they wish they could get is someone to talk to them and look them in the eye,” she said.

Since the students do service regularly as a part of their time at St. John’s, Fitzgerald said those experiences helped him because “it gives me guidelines for how to treat the people you serve.”

“Treat them as your brother,” he said, before adding, “Maybe treat them better than you treat your brother sometimes.”

Tom Sipowicz, the director of mission integration at St. John’s, noted that the work the students did on this trip is rooted in the spirituality of the school.

“The Lasallian heritage was founded in the principle of the importance of addressing the gravest and most immediate needs of those who are suffering,” he said. “St. John Baptist de La Salle stressed that the material needs of people need to be met for them to best experience the Gospel, be that in deed or word. There was not a question in the aftermath of the hurricane that St. John’s would be doing what we could to offer support.”

For both groups, prayer was a big part of their experience on the trip. In Puerto Rico, the students would often stop and pray with the families who they were helping. 

“We always believed we needed to have the presence of God in every part of our experience…it is something we do alongside God,” said Cisneros.

Likewise, the group from St. John’s stopped to pray three times each day.

“It reminded you what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” said Fitzgerald.

Agreeing, Patton added, “It reminded you that you are all here for the same mission – to do what God put us here to do; to help people in need.”