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Personal aid supplements work of larger relief organizations in Puerto Rico

Jeanette Zaragoza de León, right, visits shelter. Staff, appreciate solar lights they will share with the women.

With reports that power outages will continue into next year in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria flattened and twisted much of the island in mid-September, Jeanette Zaragoza De León, a doctoral visiting research scholar at Yale Divinity School and native Puerto Rican, thought of solar power when friends and colleagues asked her how they could help.

Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp, who worked with her in 2000 in New York City for five months, was among those asking.

After she raised nearly $2,000, Jeanette flew there in mid-October—in part to check on her mother—taking three suitcases with solar lights, solar kits, medical equipment and other items family and the community could use. 

Flying in over San Juan, she noticed the trees were a brownish color.  The hurricane had blown off all the leaves.  It looked like a war zone. Within three weeks, “new lime-green leaves were spouting.”  She also saw many blue FEMA tents and tarps covering roofs.

The solar kits, which help solve the temporary lack of electricity, are a renewal energy source that may “be a step in the right direction for Puerto Rico’s energy sector,” she said.

Jeanette noted that “washing on wooden planks is trendy these days.”

“Gas generators cause environmental problems and people can’t sleep because they are noisy,” she said, “but they need the power for refrigerators and other needs.

Compounding the problems, people are not sleeping, because they don’t have electricity for fans, and because of mosquitos, outside noise and stress. It’s affecting their health and adding to their stress, she said.

Someone told her, “I can’t sleep, so I’m praying for the day I can sleep.”

“I found things worse than I expected,” she said. “Recovery will take a long time. Many problems from before are flourishing, but people are finding community.”

She is referring to the more than $70 billion debt crisis and government corruption.

Solar lights taken to Puerto Rico to help women's shelter.

Jeanette believes, however, it’s also a time of opportunities, a time to create a new history.

People were grateful for what she brought but need so much more.

Jeanette, an ordained United Church of Christ minister, delivered the solar kits to women survivors of domestic violence who live in transitional housing.  Some solar kits went to rural areas.  She brought some medical supplies and headlamps for an acupuncture clinic, and a tumbler hand washing machine.

“Because people are asking what they can do and where they can give, I connected with three local organizations and plan to raise $25,000 on Go Fund Me for solar generators, which cost about $1,300 each, water filters, and more. The organizations are Casa Julia de Burgos, women’s shelter, the Salud para Puerto Rico, free public health clinics, and Amanecer 2025, ecological and self-sustainable group.

“I’m not asking for money to give to people, but to bring services,” she said, noting that right now there is more one-to-one help reaching people because of personal connections, people who know people, and people being present with people.

“Some people are leaving, but some who need help, like my mother, want to stay to be part of the resolution,” Jeanette said.

“I will go again after I raise funds,” she said.

 “There are relief organizations, but not enough relief is reaching people,” Jeanette said. “The support may need to be decentralized rather than centralized because the government does not work.”

She said FEMA has not yet gone to all the towns that were hit the hardest by the hurricane. 

Many national denominations and faith organizations are now gearing up for the work of long-term recovery, which is typically their role after disasters.

“In some cases, it takes longer for bigger organizations to reach people,” she said.  “Even they cannot reach everyone.”

Many people with connections are able to reach different parts of Puerto Rico, so that means more people are reached, she said, noting, “I don’t have overhead.  I can just go with what people need.

“We know the people who are donating.  We are accountable to them,” said Jeanette, who took pictures of what she purchased and pictures of giving the items to people.

“No one had yet taken things to the people I took things to,” she said. “I try to find organizations not served so my efforts are not duplicating what others are doing.”

Beside whatever help she can bring to Puerto Rico, Jeanette hopes to inspire other people to act and do more.

Jeanette serves as the multilingual and cross-sectional worship pastor at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City, where she leads multilingual-multi rhythmic worship centered in social justice.

Her bachelor’s from Lesley College is in early childhood education and her master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion included studies at seminaries in San José, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Jerusalem.

In December 2011, she earned a master’s degree in translation at the University of Puerto Rico.  In 2016, she completed requirements for a master’s degree in research in translation and interpretation studies from Universitat Jaume I, Castellón de la Plana, in Spain.  Her thesis addresses a challenge to slavery through The Amistad Case.

In addition to her ministry, for 10 years she has been a professional court, medical and conference translator and interpreter.

This year, as a doctoral visiting researcher at Yale Divinity School, she continues research on The Amistad Case, Christian abolitionists and liberation.

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