NEW YORK — Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, the island has faced immeasurable devastation, and while full recovery can seem nearly impossible, local students aren't letting that discourage them from lending a helping hand to fellow citizens in need.
One week after the catastrophic hurricane, City University of New York (CUNY) decided to take the initiative to help those in Puerto Rico.
"We want to do all we can to assist them at this time," Chancellor James B. Milliken told the CUNY community in a letter in which he announced they would work with Puerto Rico to establish plans to assist in recovery efforts to rebuild the island.
Governor Cuomo launched NY Stands with Recovery & Rebuilding Initiative in efforts to help the island.
Nine months later, the first contingent of 40 CUNY students left to do just that.
During their two-week stay, students work five days a week, volunteering in groups with a variety of nonprofits repairing homes.
Local Queens Village native Justice Bove-Domenech is a junior at Hunter College who plans to attend dental school. He said he applied for the program because of both his Puerto Rican heritage, and seeing the lasting effects Hurricane Maria had on his family members and others on the island.
"I thought this would [be] a perfect opportunity to give back to people in need and help the island which my father and grandparents were born," Bove-Domenech said.
Bove-Domenech talked about his experience in Puerto Rico:
"Some houses were worse than others, the first house had cracks underneath the seals which allowed water to get through. The heat was a thing to adjust to, I worked through the rain, and took necessary precautions. We weren't just working one day and moving on to the next location, rather we stood until our work in the house was completed. Many CUNY student took it above and beyond when it wasn't even asked, washing dishes, talking to the homeowners.”
The impact does not stop there. The students learned a lot from the people they met and helped – now having returned from their trip to rebuild Puerto Rico, these students said they are truly humbled by their experience.
"Volunteering in Puerto Rico has been a humbling experience filled with multitude of lessons. I have talked to many of the residents, from Ubers, to homeless men, store owners, locals at the basketball court, and children. [Through] the destruction, the spirit inside Puerto Ricans are resilient. The homeowners still went to work, and as [we] were working on the roof they were hard at work in the kitchen making all of us a meal from the heart. It shows character, appreciation, and resilience. No matter what life throws at you, even a hurricane, the people in Puerto Rico still found a way to be positive and still live and enjoy their life. I relate to the New York lifestyle, if a train runs a few minutes late everyone complains, meanwhile people in Puerto Rico have a positive attitude during this time. It allowed me to see things I couldn't see before. I have grown as a person. I have acquired a leadership quality.”
Jacob Grajales, a Bushwick resident and senior at The City College of New York, worked beside Bove-Domenech and other students, and posted a photo on Instagram of a man holding a black and white photograph of his brother, and another of he and the man together.
The caption reads, "He saw his brother lose everything in Hurricane Maria. He’s an intelligent, humble, funny man. He’s touched my heart and has made me proud to be a Puerto Rican helping the Island in Guaynabo. You touch hearts one at a time."
Meanwhile, current Interim Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz said these students are setting the standard for all of us.
"We take great pride in the CUNY students who have volunteered to make an impact on the lives of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico," Rabinowitz said.