How a spry octogenarian in Puerto Rico spent his 80th birthday serving others on his quake-weary island

There are no shortages of ways to commemorate a special birthday in the coastal city of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Celebrants can dine on comida criolla along the city’s La Guancha boardwalk, wander through the touristy Historic Zone or even take a ferry to the nearby Isla Caja de Muertos.

Ponce native Pablo Rivera marked his 80th birthday on Wednesday, Jan. 15. 

Rivera is a fun-loving Latter-day Saint who relishes a good party and a good meal with his many friends and relatives. 

But Wednesday’s birthday was like no other for this new octogenarian.

A seemingly-unending series of earthquakes in Ponce and neighboring communities in southern Puerto Rico in recent weeks has left many displaced and in need. Following a Jan. 7, 6.4-magnitude earthquake, Rivera and his wife, Migdalia, spent four nights sleeping in a tent in a neighborhood park. 

Debris from a collapsed wall of a building litters the ground after an earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.
Debris from a collapsed wall of a building litters the ground after an earthquake struck Puerto Rico before dawn, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Credit: Carlos Giusti, AP Photo

The Riveras have since returned to their home, but many others living in communities across Puerto Rico’s southern coast are still in tents or sleeping in their cars. Their homes are either too damaged to inhabit — or they’re simply too frightened to return because of the ongoing aftershocks. 

More than 1,280 quakes have rocked Puerto Rico’s southern region since Dec. 28, 2019. Some two dozen have been magnitude 4.5 or greater, the Associated Press reported.

So instead of marking his 80th birthday feasting and relaxing, the still-spry Rivera made his way to the Ponce stake center, said hello to the assembled gathering of  members and missionaries, pulled on a yellow Helping Hands vest and got to work assembling humanitarian kits. 

Later, he helped distribute the kits to people in need — and still feeling a bit on edge — in neighborhoods most severely affected by the quakes.

Ponce, Puerto Rico, native Pablo Rivera spent his 80th birthday on Jan. 15, 2020, performing volunteer work to bring relief to his friends and neighbors affected by ongoing earthquakes.
Ponce, Puerto Rico, native Pablo Rivera spent his 80th birthday on Jan. 15, 2020, performing volunteer work to bring relief to his friends and neighbors affected by ongoing earthquakes. Credit: Courtesy of Migdalia Rivera

“We are in the service of the Lord,” Rivera told the Church News. “I want to help people in need and I know that blessings will come. There will be time later to celebrate birthdays.”

Rivera added that he and other volunteers continue “to work day and night” to help out anyone still camping outside their homes or needing tarps, drinking water or food for their families.

Puerto Ricans, of course, endured the horrors of Hurricane Maria in 2017. But this recent natural disaster brings a different level of fear and anxiety, especially among children. Hurricanes can be predicted and followed — but earthquakes strike without warning.

Migdalia Rivera said many living across her island’s southern coast are choosing to camp or sleep in government shelters “because they are afraid to return to their homes.”

So for local Latter-day Saints the humanitarian service continues.

Last Sunday,  Ponce members gathered for a sacrament service before loading up humanitarian kits and other provisions and heading out to areas where people are camping. On Sunday, Jan. 19, local members will again attend sacrament meeting this Sunday and then go serve in their respective communities.

Missionaries and members of all ages gather at a meetinghouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to take part in a humanitarian project designed to bring relief to people on the Caribbean island affected by several earthquakes in 2020.
Missionaries and members of all ages gather at a meetinghouse in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to take part in a humanitarian project designed to bring relief to people on the Caribbean island affected by several earthquakes in 2020. Credit: Courtesy of President Franki Ruiz

“We are still working every day to support the members and others in the region who have been affected,” reported Ponce Puerto Rico Stake President Franki Ruiz. 

Besides helping people stay fed and hydrated, the Church is also caring for the mental health of folks emotionally spent from recent events.

Group therapy sessions are planned at meetinghouses in Ponce and Mayaguez on Sunday, Jan. 19.  Meanwhile, Church-coordinated mental health professionals are working with individuals in need in affected areas.

“In improvised camps, we can tell that people are very afraid,” said Caribbean Area Family Services Manager Raul Rodriguez in a Newsroom report. “The people we have seen do not want to return to their homes until the situation returns to normal. … We are assembling a team of therapists and psychologists who can work with those most affected.”

And, yes, Pablo Rivera plans to continue serving — and looking forward to a big 80th birthday party with family in February.