Farmingdale State College
Mending Homes and Hearts in Puerto Rico
When the call came for help, FSC students answered.
And in the process they were rewarded with the experience of a lifetime.
Hurricane Maria was a juggernaut that blasted the island of Puerto Rico in September 2017—a brutal, ferocious storm that destroyed homes, flooded neighborhoods, and disrupted electric power for months.
The images of roads clogged with abandoned vehicles, yards filled with mountains of bulging trash, and rotting produce scattered on the floors of empty markets shocked those living on the mainland and abroad.
But while Maria did enormous damage to our largest U.S. territory, the six Farmingdale students who traveled there to help rebuild the island discovered something even more powerful: the upbeat spirit of the people who refused to surrender to the destruction caused by the hurricane.
“The people in Puerto Rico are resilient and some of the most welcoming I’ve ever met,” says Gideon Sherry (Architectural Engineering Technology, ’20), who is also a Navy Petty Officer Third Class. “While working on different homes, the owners would invite us in and provide us with cold drinks and lunch when we took breaks, treating us like extended family for the days we were there.”
Francis Gomera (Bioscience, ’19) was also visibly touched by the people he met—and by the hospitality they offered, and the determination they bravely displayed in restoring their homes, lives, and the beautiful Caribbean island.
“The locals were very humble and caring,” he says. “It made us feel like we were at home. At no moment in time did I ever feel like I was in someone else’s home. Their kindness took the feeling of being a stranger away. We were waved at and smiled at because everyone supported our efforts to try and make their homes livable again.”
Sherry and Gomera went to Puerto Rico as part of the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative—a program launched by Governor Cuomo that sent more than 500 SUNY and CUNY volunteers to the hurricane- ravaged island for two weeks to clean, repair and rebuild homes. Jason DelPesce, Shamika Earle, Amrinder Jawandha, and Navneet Jawandha were other Farmingdale students who also made the trip.
It wasn’t easy making the final cut. Gomera and Sherry competed against 1,500 other students for the first 90 spots. Among other criteria, they had to be in good academic standing and submit an essay describing why this service learning experience was important to them. All six students were in Puerto Rico for two weeks, earning up to three academic credits.
Each visited several locations in Puerto Rico and were astonished that most residential areas were still in ruin, nearly a year later. In some towns, the floodwaters had risen up to 11 feet. Mighty gusts had torn off the tops of schools as easily as peeling the skin off an apple. Automobiles were thrown together in twisted, rusting heaps. Buildings were flattened.
The students also observed a sea of blue tarps covering homes with collapsed roofs, discarded appliances stacked like books, and walls that were ripped away by the cruel winds, leaving only the wooden bones of the buildings.
“I was shocked by how intense the damage was,” says Sherry. “There was a feeling like we were stepping through a ghost town.”
“The people in Puerto Rico are resilient and some of the most welcoming I’ve ever met.” Gideon Sherry Architectural Engineering Technology, ’20
“When I saw for myself that many houses were completely destroyed, I felt truly sad,” Gomera says. “Many of the houses were passed down from generation to generation, and seeing some of them completely abandoned showed me the magnitude of the disaster.”
The work was extraordinarily hard and the conditions merciless. Jobs were tedious. Days were long and exhausting.
The expedition was especially challenging because there were no heavy tools available. Much of the work had to be done using rudimentary implements, like hammers and nails, and a job as routine as scraping old sealant off a concrete slab roof, priming, and re-sealing took 10 days or more. Working under a broiling sun made the job that much harder—and required ample supplies of sunscreen and mosquito spray.
“On hot days we would be there for hours,” Sherry says. “The homeowner would come out to us and constantly thank us for the work we were doing. At the end, she broke down in tears, hugging everyone and telling us how grateful she was.
“That’s what makes all the work we did really worth it.”