Committed to Serve the Vulnerable and Frail

This is a first-person account from an employee about her experiences during Volunteer of America's Project Esperanza initiative. Project Esperanza was one of many relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Our work on the island is ongoing.

For the past two weeks, Volunteers of America staff—affiliates, national office and national services—have volunteered to go to Puerto Rico to help citizens in need recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Staff members are traveling in shifts to the island to stay for approximately one week to organize and distribute water and other supplies donated by generous supporters. Team One, the first group of volunteers, has done its work and left, and Team Two is now in Puerto Rico. Project Esperanza is off to a good start, but there is so much still to be done.

As many of you know I am a “cradle Catholic” and most of my education has been in Christian settings. I particularly remember the study of three special days: All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The first of these, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, is celebrated in Puerto Rico and is usually a raucous day of celebration and fun. But due to the hurricanes, the revelry was very subdued this year. For me, All Saints Day (Nov. 1) was a very different experience than usual. This day is meant to celebrate and honor all of those saints known and unknown. Today, I was in the presence of those unknown by many and forgotten by most of us.

Group_20of_20people.JPGToday, the Team Two participants returned to a site where Team One visited last week to meet residents and profile their needs. This facility is a 14-story building housing more than 240 elderly and disabled individuals. This week we visited to bring small bags of items for each resident and to offer a kind word and gesture to those unknown and forgotten saints residing in our midst. I was overwhelmed by the various reactions of these residents. They waited patiently to receive the items and make gracious remarks of thanks to us. These are residents who are 42 days post-storm, who are living in a facility that has only generator-powered corridor lights, water that only rises to their floor when the generator is operated and an elevator that only operates a few hours a day. There were no complaints, only smiles and words of thanks. Such resiliency and strength and grace is rarely seen.

Today, Team Two truly became a team. The individuals from our health care facilities in Ohio, Colorado and Minnesota, one from Volunteers of America Massachusetts and one from the national office were just as awestruck as I was by what we witnessed today. Tonight at dinner we chatted as if we had known each other forever, and indulged in good Mexican/Puerto Rican food, fun and laughter. We are now a group forged by our common experiences and determined more than ever to live out the mission of Volunteers of America. We are committed to serve the vulnerable and frail. Tomorrow we are off to Rio Piedras, where we will set up a first aid station and distribute packages to the elderly residents at Egida Leopold Figueroa. We will also visit Balseiro Santa Rita for the first time.

This week we have been joined by staff from National Church Residences, which provides housing and services to seniors, families and others who need assistance. We met on Monday to plan our week and to package items for distribution. Marsha and her team have been visiting the three properties operated by NCR in Puerto Rico and tomorrow they will be assessing the needs of residents at Proyecto Alberto Sanchez in Coamo, Puerto Rico. On Friday, the Volunteers of America and NCR teams are scheduled to meet for breakfast and to learn from our counterparts about who and what they have encountered this week.

As All Souls Day (Nov. 2) dawns, pray for your dearly departed as I will for those gone from my life. However, I can’t help but think that the three-day period “Allhallowtide” will never be quite the same after this experience in Puerto Rico.

- Barbara Banaszynski, Senior Vice President, Program Operations, Volunteers of America