WORCESTER, Mass – More than 100 people gathered at the Christian Community Church today to pray for Puerto Rico and to strategize how best to help the island after it was devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Opening the meeting, Sarai Rivera, the city council member and CCC pastor who organized the meeting, said that Worcester had its part to play in the rebuilding efforts. Referring to the story of the Wall of Jerusalem in the biblical Book of Nehemiah, Rivera said that many small groups worked, focusing intently on their part of the wall. “Eventually we saw the full construction.” In the same way, communities across the U.S. could each do their part to help rebuild Puerto Rico.
As might be expected, the meeting was at times emotionally charged. One woman spoke through tears, describing how she couldn’t reach her son, a correctional officer in a Puerto Rican town. “It’s a very small town,” she said, “full of wooden houses.”
Those gathered represented a broad cross-section of the Worcester community. There was a large contingent of Puerto Ricans, especially those with family living on the island, but people from all backgrounds – other Latin Americans, whites, African American and Afro-Caribbean people, as well as others – came to offer solidarity and support. Represented were members of Worcester’s business and nonprofit communities, elected officials, religious leaders, students, and trade unionists.
“I’m not from Puerto Rico,” said Stephanie Puente, who works with Decidete magazine and the Casa Cultural Dominicana. “I’m Dominican, but I want to help in any way I can.”
City council member Khrystian King noted that he himself had loved ones on the island, though he struck an optimistic note. “With a lot of prayer,” he said, “we can get this done.”
Mayor Joseph Petty addressed the audience, vowing that the city would do everything it could to assist. Later in the meeting, an educator spoke, saying that Puerto Rican students in Worcester Public Schools were feeling the effects of the hurricane, because many have family on the island. It was suggested that the school system could organize some sort of support for the students. Mayor Petty was asked whether he could talk with the school’s superintendent. He replied, “I’ll call her tonight.”
City Manager Ed Augustus also addressed the meeting, noting that the city had only two weeks prior sponsored an event on the Common in support of people in Houston, affected by Hurricane Irma. Augustus and others noted that the hurricane in Puerto Rico had been far more severe.
Gladys Rodriguez, representing the office of Rep. Jim McGovern, compared the current situation to the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. “Then, we came together for Hurricane Hugo,” she said. “We cooked food, got together supplies, and by a miracle, we got a plane that flew out of Worcester.”
“We heard from people then,” Rodriguez continued. “This time there’s total silence.”
There were dozens of offers to help and ideas on how to do so. Manny Gines, of United Brotherhood of Carpenters, Local 107, said people in his union were willing to go to the island to help rebuild. “All we need is a contact, where guys are going to stay,” he said.
While everyone agreed on the need and desire to help, there was some discussion about the best way to do so.
“Goods are not as important as money,” City Manager Augustus said. “It’s easier to move, and it will stimulate the local [Puerto Rican] economy.”
Others did discuss sending goods to Puerto Rico. Maritza Cruz, of the YWCA, said that it would be worthwhile to send a container of goods to Puerto Rico with “diapers, – a lot of times people don’t think about this – feminine products, canned food, water.”
A man named Peter said he was hoping to go down and work for a year. Others cautioned that going now to Puerto Rico could tax an already struggling population.
David Jordan, of the Seven Hills Foundation, said, “I have a hundred employees who all want to get in an
airplane tomorrow. That may not be the most efficient way, though.”
Mayor Petty suggested that, whatever the case, work should be coordinated with experts in disaster recovery and those already on the island. He and Augustus said they would be in touch with National Grid, the electricity and gas provider, to see if it was possible for that company to help in the rebuilding of the island’s power infrastructure.
Rivera, along with Rev. Jose Encarnacion, also a pastor at the church, made sure everyone went away with “homework.” The group would form subcommittees, aimed at raising money, filling a container of goods, and supporting local students. They will meet at the Christian Community Church on 108 Beacon St, Mon. Sept. 26 at 6. Originally, the working meeting was to take place at Centro, but was moved to avoid confusion. That organization, which has been serving the community for four decades, was represented at the meeting by Roberto Diaz, who helped emcee the program.
Those interested in supporting Puerto Rico are urged to attend the meeting on the 26th. For more information on the efforts, click here.
Featured image: City council member Sarai Rivera, Centro’s Roberto Diaz, Mayor Joseph Petty, and City Manager Ed Augustus.