“If there’s a way to help, we’ll always find it.” So says Sister Magna Martinez, a Salesian missionary serving at Colegio Maria Auxiliadore (Mary, Help of Christians) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. More than six months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Sr. Magna and her colleagues remain passionately committed to helping the countless families who lost everything in the storm -- and her words reflect our missionaries’ faith and tenacity, even as official relief efforts fall significantly short in meeting the ongoing, and widespread, need.
Back in September, immediately after the storm’s danger had passed, Sr. Magna and her colleagues ventured into the streets of San Juan to assess the damage, and minister to victims. “When we saw their homes, our hearts were crushed,” she recalls, overcome with emotion, even today. “We didn’t have much to offer, but realized: We have the school. We have the cafeteria. We can clean it all out, and host as many people as we can.”
In those initial, chaotic days, Colegio Maria Auxiliadore filled with children and families who had nowhere else to go. And a similar scene played out across the island: regardless of damage to their own facilities, Salesian missionaries opened their doors: both to victims who needed help, and to organizations seeking a central, trusted location to distribute aid. In the community of Cantera, for example, volunteers from the Salesian youth center accompanied Father Carlos Piantini into the streets, visiting 500 families whose homes had been destroyed, and delivering what small items of relief they had on-hand.
“According to residents, Fr. Carlos and his volunteers were the first people to show up,” says Franklin Ortega, executive director of the Don Bosco Salesian Foundation, who toured Puerto Rico with Father Francisco Batista, provincial of the Antilles region, after the hurricane.
Mr. Ortega reports that in Orocovis, missionaries lent space to the local family services agency, whose building was destroyed by the storm. From these new headquarters, officials were able to assist as many as 4,000 local residents with desperately needed emergency shelter. And in Aguadilla, Sr. Maritza Ortiz and her fellow missionaries from Casa Juan Bosco ventured out to the surrounding neighborhoods, checking on residents -- especially the elderly, and those who lived alone.
“We tried to help immediately, in any way we could at that moment,” says Sr. Maritza.
Their assistance remains crucial, even now. Sr. Maritza and Sr. Magna continue to provide food, clothing, small household items and even mattresses to those who have yet to recover from Maria’s damage.
Karla, for example, is a mother of two whose family still lives in a home that would have likely been condemned on the mainland. Another young mother, Yesenia struggles to meet basic needs for herself and her son Jordan, who remains traumatized by the storm. “Even if it’s just raining, he thinks it’s a hurricane,” she says. “He won’t go into our house unless I tell him to.” And then, there is Doris, who suffers from a respiratory illness that requires supplemental oxygen -- something she can’t always use, because electricity to her home is sporadic. Today, all three women persevere, in part, because of our Salesian missionaries.
Although they are not students at the school, Karla’s children have found respite at Colegio Maria Auxiliadore. There, they receive meals, clothes and relief from worry as they enjoy recreational activities with their peers. Karla can find relief knowing her children are in a safe, loving environment while she works to rebuild for home.
“The school is a God-send for me, and I know my kids feel exactly the same way,” Karla says. “They are given all the necessities, and of course food. With the help of God and the Salesians, we will be able to make it.”
Little Jordan does attend the school, but it was the other students who informed Sr. Magna about the significant losses he and his mother Yesenia suffered. “From what we found out from the others, we tried to help them in any way we could,” recalls Sr. Magna.
“After the storm, I had nothing … not even to eat,” says Yesenia, fighting back tears. “I am at a loss for words. [The Salesians] helped me and my son so much.”
“Viva los Salesianos!” exclaims Doris, whose regular visits from Sr. Maritza help ensure she has the oxygen she needs.
Still, far too many residents struggle to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives in the absence of adequate assistance. Officials estimate it will take billions of dollars, and perhaps years, to rebuild Puerto Rico’s infrastructure and economy. And it’s difficult to see where the money will come from, when traditional means of income -- agriculture, tourism and manufacturing -- have been crippled, if not completely destroyed. For this reason, missionaries also hope to leverage their local relationships in order to connect families with the resources they need, including financial assistance for purchasing materials to reconstruct their homes.
“We won’t shy away from any challenge,” concludes Sr. Magna.
We invite you to view videos of our missionaries in action in Puerto Rico here.
Our mission is to be there before, during and after natural disasters to help people in need. What’s your mission?