ROCHESTER — Igdioris Verdejo left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria to start a new life with her 13-year-old daughter in Rochester.
Upon moving, she connected with Irene Sánchez, a former classmate at the University of Puerto Rico, who leads a group helping hurricane survivors called “Puertorriqueños Unidos en la Distancia” (“Puerto Ricans United in the Distance”).
Since Verdejo and her daugher arrived in Rochester just before winter, the group provided them with winter clothes and referrals to local organizatizations that helped Verdejo obtain an apartment and a job as a home health aide.
“Hacido una clase de ayuda de lo mejor que yo ha conseguido aca para todos los puertorriqueños que han venido de la isla,” dijo Verdejo. “Siempre, (el grupo) esta en posición de ayudar.”
“They provide first-class help here for all of the Puerto Ricans who have relocated from the island,” Verdejo said of Puertorriqueños Unidos en la Distancia. “(The group) is always at the ready to help.”
Two years before Hurricane Maria hit, the Unidos group began as a Facebook page to share information about what was happening in Puerto Rico, explained Sánchez, the group’s founder and president.
After the hurricane, the group grew from 100 to 500 members on Facebook, she noted.
“Basically, what we did was send a Facebook message to the people saying we wanted to do something to help our island … we’re walking with you,” Sánchez said.
A virtual group then became a real team of volunteers in Rochester leading efforts to help families on the island, she said. Days after Hurricane Maria hit last September, she held an initial brainstorming session at the Worker Justice Center office on Culver Road where she works as an outreach worker.
At that first meeting, the group decided to begin collecting donations and supplies and organized a Zumbathon last fall, she said.
They then had to find a way to get the donations to the island, which proved difficult with shipping companies charging as much as $5,000 to deliver the supplies, Sánchez explained.
“There was no way we could send stuff to Puerto Rico that wasn’t going to be too costly,” she said.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the Empire State Relief and Recovery Effort to collect and deliver donations to Puerto Rico, the group sent the items being accepted, she said. Whatever perishable items they couldn’t donate, they sent to a local food pantry.
The group kept receiving donations, such as diapers and other necessities, and couldn’t afford to rent storage space as it’s been an operation solely of volunteers, Sánchez said. The Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Rochester stepped in to provide shelf space, she added.
Because of the community’s continued generosity, the group also hosted a Christmas event at the Aldersgate church as well as an English as a second language class with instructors who provided information on the terms for service providers in the community, she added.
“We felt we were being invited to connect the dots for the people,” Sanchez said.
About a month after the hurricane hit last fall, many of the group’s members also began volunteering weekly at the Welcome Resource Center for displaced families, Sánchez said. The center was coordinated by Ibero-American Action League at its building on Clifford Avenue and then at the parish hall at Our Lady of the Americas Church on East Main Street.
Last spring, the Unidos group cohosted a job fair at OLOA that was preceded a week earlier by job-readiness training that included providing the participants with vouchers for business clothes and food, she said. In July, the group hosted a “Kickoff to Summer” celebration and is part of a community campaign to encourage Puerto Ricans who moved to Rochester to vote.
“In Puerto Rico, they cannot vote for congress (representatives),” Sanchez said. “Here, they have that opportunity. We want to make sure they take it.”
Next, the group will begin the application process to obtain 501-3C nonprofit classification, which will allow it to apply for grants to hire a staffer to organize its activities, she added. The group has been finalizing its bylaws and has agreed on a board of directors.
Its mission will continue as it began, Sanchez said, to provide families displaced by natural disasters with the resources to facilitate their transitions into the Rochester community.
The support the group is providing is a blessing, said Julio Vélez during a back-to-school event Sept. 1. He stopped by with his 12-year-old daughter, Juliette, to pick up a backpack and school supplies.
He lost his business in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, he explained.
“We need more groups like this to help people,” Vélez added. “Many are still in need.”
The struggle continues for many families who still can’t find jobs, don’t yet speak English and are trying to navigate a new school system, Sánchez added.
“We’ve helped them in every way we can but we don’t have the manpower,” she said of the hundreds of families served. “We are based on volunteers … and this is basically a second job.”
Obtaining the nonprofit status will help the group grow and help more people, noted Maria Delgado Sutton, who has known Sanchez for about six years through their outreach work with the migrant community. She also has helped with a couple of the group’s events.
“Both (events) were extremely well run and there was much information for families to receive,” Delgado Sutton said in an e-mail to El Mensajero Católico. “(Irene) is a spirited advocate for the underserved and truly has a passion for all that she tackles. I believe her efforts to connect families arriving has been beneficial. One thing I can say about Irene is that she does not just ‘hand out’ a referral and forgets about the family. Follow up assistance is very important to her.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To contact or learn more about Puertorriqueños Unidos en la Distancia, visit purunidos.org.