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Not forgotten: Church service and support help Puerto Rico find hope

Working with JustServe, Project Hope and other nonprofit organizations, the Church provides emergency relief and preparedness on the island

AIBONITO, Puerto Rico — Through her 78 years of life, Margarita Reyes has weathered many storms: raising a son with disabilities, experiencing hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, a pandemic and widowhood, just to name a few.

Reflecting on losing her husband brought tears to her eyes. Often she is lonely. But she is a positive person by nature, and overall, she said, her life is blessed and good. 

Support and visits help lift her spirits. On Friday, Jan. 13, she welcomed two friends — Medardo Rosario and Gustavo Pagan. They brought with them hygiene kits with soap, shampoo, toothpaste and other supplies, as leaving her home to go purchase items can be difficult. 

Rosario is a community coordinator for the city of Aibonito; Pagan is the logistics manager for Project Hope on the island. Project Hope — with funding and support from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — has been able to help cities like Aibonito take care of their elderly and vulnerable populations. Some 800 people like Reyes live in this city and in the mountains around it. 

Reyes repeatedly expressed her gratitude for the supplies and the visit. Rosario promised to be back soon. 

In the months following Hurricane Maria in 2017, a local leader told the Church News that his greatest fear was “that people will forget about us. We don’t want to be forgotten.” The emergency relief and response from the Church and many other organizations prove Puerto Rico is not forgotten — and can have hope again.

Aibonito, Puerto Rico, is pictured on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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Emergency response and preparedness

Ivelisse Colón, the mayor’s assistant and leader for the service community in Aibonito, said Hurricane Fiona in September 2022 brought a lot of rain, and recovery has been harder for the elderly. The city is working to have its residents be more prepared for the next storm.

“It’s important because we live in the hurricane avenues. That’s our reality, Aug. 1 to Nov. 30,” she said. “We have to have a mindset to deal with disasters, to take the reserves that organizations like yours and others bring to us to teach the people to be able to deal with a disaster in their own homes.”

Ivelisse Colón, Aibonito mayor’s assistant, shows a box of hygiene kits donated with the help of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at City Hall in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Working together with the Church and nonprofit organizations is crucial, said Colón, and the city of Aibonito is modeling the way for other cities on the island.

“Government has the power and the will to reach people and communities, but without the organizations that help us, we cannot reach the quantity of persons and families,” she said. 

“Sometimes you have the access to those goods and medicines and first aid that are really important to the people, and the government has the goodwill to serve but it’s not enough.”

Colón identified homes where families were in need after Fiona, and missionaries from the Church helped Project Hope distribute thousands of hygiene kits and supplies.

Pagan said the missionaries were enthusiastic, energetic and easy to work with. “They were asking me, ‘Hey, if you have another activity, if you need us, just call!’”

Gustavo Pagan, logistics manager for Project Hope in Puerto Rico; Elder Wilford Taylor, a JustServe missionary; and President Edgardo Cartagena, the second counselor in the Caguas Puerto Rico Stake presidency and the Church’s welfare and self-reliance manager for Puerto Rico, take a picture with missionaries in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission as they deliver hygiene kits in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, on Dec. 30, 2022. | Gustavo Pagan
Missionaries pick up hygiene kits at the city offices of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, to distribute with Project Hope to people in need on Dec. 29, 2022. | Elder Wilford Taylor

The Church’s funding has helped Project Hope cover many administrative costs and, more recently, purchase several top-of-the-line water filtration systems to distribute to places like community centers and service providers in Puerto Rico.

Pagan took the Church News to El Campito senior center in Aibonito, where its new water filtration system makes the water safer for cooking and drinking. The filter not only helps the 50 elderly people who come to the building every day, it also helps 60 others in the community who are given food. They know they can trust that the washed fruits and vegetables will be safe to eat and give to their families.

Gustavo Pagan, Project Hope Puerto Rico office logistic manager, shows a reverse osmosis water filtration system that was donated with the help of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Centro de Actividades y Servicios Multiples El Campito in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“The result is life and health,” said the director, Enilda Mateo, expressing her gratitude as Pagan translated.

Gloria Aponte, 92, said the center is better than her home. She takes guitar lessons, dancing lessons, eats good meals and spends time with her friends. “I am very happy with everything, everything,” she said.

Gloria Aponte, 92, plays guitar while posing for a portrait with Gustavo Pagan, Project Hope Puerto Rico office logistics manager, outside of Centro de Actividades y Servicios Multiples El Campito in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. Aconite is learning guitar at the center. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico

In the last five years, the Church’s humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico have increased with substantial emergency relief. Besides Hurricane Fiona, the island faced two magnitude 6.0 earthquakes in 2019 and 2020 and lost more than 5,000 lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.

September 2017’s Hurricane Maria was one of the worst storms to ever hit Puerto Rico, and the whole Caribbean. President Edgardo Cartagena, second counselor in the Caguas Puerto Rico Stake presidency and the Church’s welfare and self-reliance manager for Puerto Rico, said many Puerto Ricans measure time as “before Maria and after Maria.”

People lost power for many months — his parents had no electricity for almost a year. “Many people suffered for that. Many died because they didn’t have power,” he said.

President Cartagena was opening a new business location at the time — a small store in the center of town in the mountains. Maria knocked out cell service and communications.

“For some miracle, my phones, my wife and my kids, they were working. As soon as I noticed, I took out the banners of the store and I wrote, ‘You can call your family here.’ So people used my phones to communicate. It was amazing to hear their stories,” he said.

President Edgardo Cartagena, second counselor in the Caguas Puerto Rico Stake presidency and welfare and self-reliance Puerto Rico manager, speaks to the Church News outside of the Aibonito chapel in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Church provided financial help and has participated in 34 humanitarian projects on the island since Maria, including earthquake and hurricane relief efforts and supplies, emergency aid to hospitals and schools, drought, disease, and livelihood assistance as well as psychosocial support.

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And since Fiona, besides Project Hope, the Church has funded projects with the American Red Cross, U.N. World Food Programme, Rotary Club, Grogo Foundation and other charitable organizations to provide medical supplies, hygiene kits, shelter, clean water, food and financial assistance to those affected in Puerto Rico.

Just as Reyes expressed hope in the future for the island and optimism for the Puerto Rican people, President Cartagena felt the same way.

“When President Russell M. Nelson came to the island after Maria, he said ‘better days are yet to come,’” he remembered. “I have faith that better days for Puerto Rico are just ahead. We’ve been blessed.”

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JustServe in Puerto Rico

Elder Wilford Taylor and Sister Sharla Taylor arrived on the island two weeks after Fiona to serve as JustServe missionaries. In this capacity, they have been involved in many distribution efforts of supplies and work alongside members and missionaries in service projects.

“JustServe is brand new here,” Elder Taylor said. “We’ve had some progress, and we’ve had some obstacles, and we’ve got smiles on our faces every time we get a chance to do something good for the JustServe program.”

JustServe.org is a website and app where community organizations can list their needs and volunteers can find service opportunities. The Taylors were recently invited to participate in a radio show hosted by the adviser to the territorial government over faith-based organizations. 

“So there we were, on the radio talking about JustServe,” Elder Taylor said. The two have also personally visited with organizations and churches to tell them about the platform and help them sign up. 

Said Sister Taylor: “Going around and visiting these agencies, it’s incredible to me to hear their stories. Because they usually start their agencies because of something hard in their lives that they’ve been through themselves.”

Elder Wilford Taylor and Sister Sharla Taylor, left, work with missionaries to serve a hot lunch to the elderly population and those in need with the Catholic Church in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, Nov. 17, 2022. | Provided by Elder Wilford Taylor

A member of the Catholic Church has cancer but gives back to others by serving meals. A man who had been trapped in the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 returned to Puerto Rico to begin an agency to feed the homeless. “It’s incredible to hear the stories and how they are loving and serving one another here. They are wonderful people,” Sister Taylor said.

Missionaries are now volunteering twice a week at comedors — or soup kitchens — where they help serve a hot lunch to those in need. And members are finding new ways to serve their neighbors

Right after Fiona, the Taylors arranged for missionaries, Church members and their friends — 87 volunteers total — to help the Red Cross package food boxes to ship around the island. They worked through several days in October and November 2022.

President Cartagena described a service project the young adults did in his stake after Fiona. The island was not damaged as badly as by Maria or the earthquakes, but people still had many needs.

“Instead of taking them supplies, we wanted them to smile and have a break from the disaster. So we took ice cream,” he said. “We put ice cream in a truck, and we gave over 300 servings of ice cream to people who were sad in their houses. They had been damaged by the flooding, and we gave them a break.”

Service opens doors

As the members serve each other and their neighbors, they grow closer to Jesus Christ and become more like Him, said Elder Taylor.

“The people of Puerto Rico love to donate their time and their effort to help others,” he said. “I believe it’s partly because of the tragedies they’ve had here. They have to look to each other to help.”

Elder Wilford Taylor and Sister Sharla Taylor work with missionaries and JustServe volunteers with Banco de Alimentos to assemble food purchased by the American Red Cross to distribute in some of the hardest hit areas of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona. The volunteers worked over five days in October and November 2022 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. | Provided by Elder Wilford Taylor

Service has brought back a sense of community that had been lost, said President Cartagena. 

“As we were hit by these catastrophes, everyone got together and started worrying about each other and helping any way they can. We are all in this together and that’s very important,” he said.

When he was a branch president, the members would get together as a branch and serve people in need, and he saw how it opened doors for speaking about the Church.

“The way we preached the gospel was through service,” he said.

Two missionaries in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission distribute hygiene kits in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, Dec. 30, 2022. | Elder Wilford Taylor
Missionaries in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission prepare to distribute hygiene kits in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, Dec. 30, 2022. | Gustavo Pagan
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