While other students spent their summer vacation resting and relaxing, Rebecca Mueller, a second-year social work master’s student at Stony Brook, spent two weeks of her break rebuilding roofs for hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.
The trip was part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, which launched in April.
Volunteers from SUNY and CUNY schools went on two-week “tours” where they worked alongside contractors and other relief groups to repair homes devastated by Hurricane Maria last September.
As of mid-July, the governor’s office reported 90 homes restored, with only 60 left until they reached their goal of 150 houses.
International program coordinators from the Stony Brook Study Abroad Office, Pascale Jones and Jessica Zuniga, each spent a week chaperoning a group of students sent to rebuild roofs in the city of Orocovis. One was for a family that had lived in a shed under their home with a 3-year-old child and a week-old baby.
“I could’ve expected the Puerto Ricans to resent us after the way they had been treated by mainland U.S.,” Zuniga said. “But they welcomed us with open arms and even offered to cook us meals.”
Mueller experienced similar kindness from the residents when she worked on one severely water damaged house.
“I had to clean out a room that hadn’t been touched since the storm,” Mueller said. “Everything in the room was water damaged with mold and bugs all over everything.”
The roof at that home had a leak and when the work was done, the homeowner of the destroyed room personally came to tell Mueller’s group while they were on a site that there was no longer any damage, she explained in an email.
“It was a really good feeling,” she said.
SUNY Global Center, the central office for international programs in SUNY, worked with the governor’s office and UNICEF to plan out funding for the student tours. They reached out to different schools for chaperones for the various trips.
Peter Velz, assistant vice chancellor for external affairs in the SUNY Chancellor’s Office, spent March through June planning out the small details and working with campuses to plan a large deployment of SUNY students.
“We’re talking a very short timeline from student selection, to planning, to deployment,” Velz explained.
SUNY had one database application for all students out for about just one week and had about 3,100 hundred applicants for 250 spots.
The application included a short essay prompt describing why they wanted to do this initiative and as long as they were in good academic standing, each campus was given final decision on which students were selected.
Stony Brook selected five for their group: Nicole Carrasquillo, occupational therapy graduate, Zakhar Lyakhovych, sophomore engineering major, Alexander Douglas, education major graduate, Daniel Camaj, graduate accounting student and Yan Ming Lee, a junior biochemistry major.
Once there, students partnered with the University of Puerto Rico and other universities and had 10 work days out of their two weeks there. For each day, they had to write a one-page journal entry and at the end, they had to write a four-page reflection paper on a topic of interest, according to Zuniga.
According to Velz, Gov. Cuomo was in Puerto Rico on July 22, looking to find ways to keep students engaged in future trips, whether they be summer, spring or winter exchange programs.
This is part of a two-step goal to enrich recovery efforts and to also provide students with more one-on-one connections.
“The Governor’s initiative stood as a good template,” Velz said. “It is still very much in the planning stages, but I would not be surprised to see this grow.”