Volunteers of America Launches Project Esperanza

Bringing Aid to Puerto Rico

In an effort to help the people of Puerto Rico recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Volunteers of America staff members from around the country traveled in shifts to the island to stay for approximately one week to organize and distribute water and other supplies donated by generous supporters. Project Esperanza has made an impact, but there is so much still to be done. We continue to accept contributions to support our ongoing work in Puerto Rico, including assisting with housing and helping seniors and families. Click "Donate Now" below.

Read on below for weekly shift updates.

Your gift can help immediately provide recovery and rebuilding assistance to those in Puerto Rico.

Project Esperanza: Week One Report

The first week began with visits to more than 800 vulnerable elderly residents to assess their needs. The two most often mentioned were drinking water and battery-operated fans. With no electric power beyond brief intervals supplied by generators, the heat can be overwhelming, especially for the elderly.

The week ended with the arrival of a container ship loaded with a variety of desperately needed items. “Our spirits were lifted, as for the first time we knew that we could use these items to alleviate some of the suffering we have witnessed,” said Senior Vice President, Program Operations Barbara Banaszynski. The goods were trucked from the port of San Juan to the Boys and Girls Club in Las Margaritas, where the group took over the gym to sort and organize all the donations. Everything will be shared with people served by Volunteers of America, the Boys and Girls Club and the Banco Popular Foundation.

The first team of Volunteers of America staff will soon be leaving as the second team arrives for their week of recovery work. Delivering the items sorted to those who need them most will be first on the list of tasks.

Project Esperanza: Week Two Report

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.

Today, 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.

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

Project Esperanza: Week Three Report

Over the past month I’ve spent in Puerto Rico, I have found that the best-laid plans need to be flexible to allow for chance encounters that lead us in new and unexpected directions. Last week ended in an unexpected manner because of a chance conversation with a Senior Corp volunteer in a facility In Rio Piedras. This volunteer (a senior herself) so poignantly outlined the suffering of seniors in an complex located behind the Mall of San Juan that we decided to arrange a complex visit. It was an eye-opening experience for our volunteers to see the intensity of need by the elderly, the disabled and families with young children, often with a head of household who was disabled. A future Volunteers of America Project Esperanza team will return to this complex to assist with some specialty items for those households that the team assessed. However, the immensity of need in this complex for basics such as food and water is far beyond our team’s ability to respond. Our contact with the First Lady of Puerto Rico and the Governor’s office have been notified of this urgent need for assistance.

The last Saturday in Puerto Rico for Team Two was spend in a cross-island journey to visit Victor Hernandez, a Volunteers of America-owned complex which serves income-limited seniors. The visual images across the island are now familiar—storm debris piled on the roadside ready for pick up, blue tarps on roof tops, snapped electrical poles, and much traffic as people scurried to complete errands in the daylight. Local commerce is returning, but the historic beach town on the way to Aguadilla was absent of those visitors who drive their economies. Hopefully the absence isn’t permanent.

The visit to Victor Hernandez was a fitting family reunion with the staff who were gracious to join us on Saturday. They were joyous that they were remembered and that we traveled to visit the facility and the seniors they serve. While not all the senior residents have returned to the Victor Hernandez complex, the staff expect most to return after the holidays. As in many family reunions, many pictures were taken and a Facebook Live was recorded on the scene.

So Monday brings the transition from Team Two to Team Three. By the end of the week, we had shared lots of hugs and made many new friends, and we all had developed a closer bond with the mission of Volunteers of America. The Team 3 pickups are hectic and the chaos of the San Juan airport scene makes them wonder what have they signed up to do. However, in a few hours and with a bit or orientation, the teams are at ease and ready and eager to begin their week of service.

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

Project Esperanza: Week Four Report

Why is it that when you are in the middle of something it seems like time is suspended and the end is not near? It was like that in my childhood summers, the weeks before Christmas, reaching the age to drive, reaching 21 years, raising children to leave for college and their own lives. All passed by in an endless stream of time and opportunities. Opportunities taken and missed fill our time in life.

Volunteers of America in its 120-plus years of service has made the most of its time and opportunities. The organization’s prosperity speaks to opportunities taken. So it is with the opportunity to serve in Puerto Rico. That opportunity did not begin four weeks ago, but started with the decision to serve in Puerto Rico more than a decade ago. The last four weeks are but the latest opportunity taken.

In these last four weeks, I have had an upfront look at the face of Volunteers of America and I can say I am assured more than ever that our organization will last the next 120 years. The 60-plus individuals who have made the trip to the island have seen firsthand the need and had the opportunity to serve.

As Pam Richardson, president/CEO of Volunteers of America Oklahoma pointed out to me about her team members who visited the island, “The giver receives by giving.”

Those who came are supported by many more at home who filled in where and when needed. When they return, they have told the stories of their journey to an infinite number of others who now in some way know the real story of what is happening in Puerto Rico.

Each team who came to the island in the last four weeks developed friendships and freely gave of themselves in their days on the island. Simple gestures of kindness, like tying a young child’s shoe, making the time to be a listening ear to an elder’s stories, marveling about how those in need can be so excited that the First Lady of Puerto Rico is soon to have a child, assuring that despite the effort to locate a needed item it will be found and delivered to an individual by a team member. All team members spent most of their time on the island abandoning those “me-based” thoughts and devoted their time to focusing on others. I have witnessed the teams making new friends in the organization and throughout the island. Maybe we only did little things, but within those little moments with individuals we have brought new energy, new adventures to ourselves and others and have in the process enriched our souls.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I think I will focus less on the turkey and cranberries (maybe that’s because I haven’t purchased my Thanksgiving items yet) but more on Thanksgiving as a way of life that brings peace, happiness and, most importantly, a new perspective on life. Despite the lack of electricity for most on the island, I have seen families preparing for the feast with nary a turkey in sight because most can’t cook them anyway. They are seemingly focused on what they have and not on what they don’t have.

As this chapter closes, more chapters are in front of us as we ponder the best ways to continue to serve. Thanks to all the team members for your service on the island and many thanks to all the 16,000 Volunteers of America family members, donors and corporations who have supported the Puerto Rico recovery efforts. Happy Thanksgiving!

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