Veronica Figueroa-Velez, executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, and her sister, Yannette Cole, grew up in Puerto Rico.
Jim Tinjum’s partner is from Puerto Rico, and he teaches Puerto Rican graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Both sets of Joe Maldonado’s grandparents are from the island. He still has relatives there and he visits every couple of years.
These are just a few of the 40 people whose personal connections propelled them into action after Hurricane Maria struck last fall. They quickly organized to form the Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin and raised almost $90,000 in cash and in-kind donations to help their homeland.
So far, they’ve made connections with Puerto Rican organizations, purchased water filters and collected vegetable seeds to replant crops. They’re still accepting donations, and are now asking for proposals to distribute the rest of the money.
But as many didn’t know each other before Hurricane Maria, the effort came with the added bonus of meeting fellow Puerto Ricans. Figueroa-Velez has lived in Madison for years, but when she got in a room with the relief group, she thought, “Where did you all come from?”
CALL TO ACTION
For Figueroa-Velez and her two sisters in Madison, helping their homeland was an easy decision.
“To start, I’m Puerto Rican,” she said. “My family was stranded there … and we didn’t know for days whether or not they were okay.”
Figueroa-Velez went to the board of UNIDOS to ask if it could act as a fiscal agent to collect relief funds. The board agreed, and messages went out about the effort.
“All of a sudden from three sisters came 40 people coming together to work on this,” Figueroa-Velez said.
Many of them didn’t know there were that many Puerto Ricans in the area. The Puerto Rican community in Madison is small and spread out, Maldonado said.
Madison poet laureate Oscar Mireles collected an anthology of poetry titled, “I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin.” The group joked that the next book should be, “I Didn’t Know There Were Puerto Ricans in Wisconsin.”
Although they may not have known each other, the group worked efficiently and were surprised by organizations, restaurants and schools that offered, without being asked, to host events and fundraisers for their cause.
“(Organizations) basically sort of banned together and said, ‘We’re going to have this night for you, (or) have this concert on your behalf, (or) have kids and parents all chip in,” Maldonado said.
A few examples: Madison College held a taco sale, and Olbrich Gardens, the High Noon Saloon and the North Street Cabaret hosted fundraisers. The Brink Lounge held a comedy benefit show and World of Beer in Middleton held a “Latin Night” fundraiser.
“We were not expecting all this overwhelming love that we got,” Figueroa-Velez said.
SEEDS, WATER, SOLAR
Cole visited Puerto Rico in November and made connections with local organizations in need of help. Through Maldonado’s cousins, who work as agronomists on the island, she met farmers and agriculture college professors who wanted to replant destroyed crops and gardens, but lacked the seeds to do it.
When she returned, PRRF collected packets of seeds for the farmers and the University of Puerto Rico-Utuado. Shipping items to the island is expensive, so when Figueroa-Velez visited Puerto Rico in December, she took a suitcase with just a few clothes. The rest was stuffed with cilantro, basil, lettuce, tomato and spinach seeds.
When Figueroa-Velez stepped off of the plane, it was hard to stomach some of the devastation.
“You start striving and see houses completely destroyed, things completely trashed, chunks of road that are just gone. The light poles in many areas were just hanging by a little thread.”
“I’m not going to deny, driving from the airport to (my family’s) house, I cried for like an hour-and-a-half until I got home, just to see the devastation, and not knowing yet what I would see at home,” she said. “Some places just looked like an atomic bomb exploded there.”
Figueroa-Velez and Cole chipped into the relief work while they were there, bringing medical supplies and food to the elderly living in the mountains, delivering water filters and distributing food at food pantries.
They spent time with la Alianza de Medicos al Rescate (A.M.A.R.), a nonprofit group of health professionals and volunteers throughout Latin America. PRRF spent $10,000 of a $15,000 CUNA Mutual donation to buy family water filtration systems, which A.M.A.R. will distribute among three hard-hit municipalities and teach families to use.
Along with seeds and water, PRRF is working on providing electricity. Hogar Albergue para Niños Jesús de Nazaret is a nonprofit outside of Mayaguez serving children who were removed from their homes because of abuse. The nonprofit gets minimal support from the government, said PRRF member Tinjum. As of a month ago, they still didn’t have electricity and were using a portable generator to pump water out of their well.
Tinjum is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Professional Development at UW-Madison. UW-Madison Engineers without Borders, graduate students in the Sustainable Systems Engineering and Tinjum are raising funds, designing and planning to install a solar panel system for the organization.
By installing solar panels, the team aims to cut the organization’s monthly $1,000 utility bill in half, and allow the center to put more money into outreach and counseling. To do that, they’ll need to raise $60,000 by June 1, with plans to install the system by this fall.
THE WORK TO BE DONE
PRRF is accepting proposals to allocate the rest of its funds, and are prioritizing ideas from Puerto Rican organizations. PRRF will dissolve after the money is distributed, but wants to “urge our fellow citizens to continue to put pressure on elected officials to support long-term relief on the island.”
Figueroa-Velez and Cole saw firsthand that there’s still much work to do, but both left hopeful.
"I went prepared with this sense of emptiness and hopelessness, ready to see a different Puerto Rico than I remembered,” Figueroa-Velez said. “All of that went away when I saw the spirit of people.”
To learn how to donate to PRRF, email PRRFSCWI@gmail.com.