Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central
Puerto Rico Relief Fund of South Central Wisconsin. Since that time, they have morphed into a multifaceted relief effort responding to the need in
Puerto Rico, the different forms of resources in Wisconsin and the most efficient and effective way to get those resources into the hands of
people and organizations in Puerto Rico who can have the greatest impact with the limited resources at hand.
When they began their efforts, the group focused on seeking the donation of essential supplies like batteries, small generators and water and
then developed contacts to have the supplies shipped to Puerto Rico.
“We essentially checked with Senator Baldwin, the National Guard, groups in Milwaukee and groups in Minnesota to see how we could get
items there,” López said. “We essentially found a lot of dead-ends unfortunately in terms of actually getting the items transported to Puerto Rico.
We made some connections with the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, which has been organizing the community for decades. The Puerto
Rican Agenda in Chicago — essentially a lot of different Puerto Rican organizations in the Humboldt Park area that have united to deal with
issues related to the Puerto Rican community — once they saw that Hurricane Maria was going to be hitting the island, they organized very
quickly. Through Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Congressman Luis Gutierrez — who has been very active and serves that community —
they were able to establish a connection with the CEO of United Airlines and from there, things got ignited in terms of being able to get donated
cargo space on United flights to actually bring items to Puerto Rico.”
The Madison group, along with a group of university students who had collected their own donated items, transported their donated items plus
some solar lights that had been purchased through a negotiated price to the Puerto Rican Agenda’s warehouse. The Agenda then shipped the
goods to Puerto Rico through the donated United cargo space.
So far, the Fund has raised $51,000 of their $100,000 goal, thanks, in part, to a $15,000 contribution from CUNA Mutual and its employees. The
Relief Fund has been very frugal with the funds, waiting for the right time to make an impact.
“In terms of the financial donations, today at our executive committee meeting, there was a motion to spend $20,000 to buy water filtration
systems,” López said. “One of our members, Yannette Figueroa Cole, will be working with the actual manufacturer to negotiate a low price in
the same way that we got the low price for solar lights. We’re still working out the details on how we will get them to the island. The initial water
filtration systems will be for individual families. Potentially, depending on the pricing, we may be able to buy over 300 water filtration systems to
be distributed to families.”
The Relief Fund has also developed into a kind of clearinghouse for different initiatives and ideas.
“A lot of these ideas have popped up organically just because when we first started doing this project, we really had no idea of what the ground
situation has been like,” said Joe Maldonado. “So opportunities have been popping up and what our group has really been is a hub for
information. When a random person says they want to go to Puerto Rico, we think, ‘How can we safely guide people towards doing something
that will be a help and not a hindrance.’”
One of the project ideas involves the UW School of Engineering and Engineers without Borders.
“We have a member of our committee who is a professor and specializes in renewable energy,” Maldonado said. “His name is Jim Tinjum. Jim
works in the areas of wind power and geothermal heat and cooling exchanges. Essentially what he has in mind is working with Engineers
without Borders. Hopefully they will vote in favor of establishing a project in Puerto Rico. The concept that is being worked out right now would
be to essentially house an orphanage or youth shelter for youth who have been abandoned or abused and help insure that they have the ability
to survive this type of natural disaster in the future. One idea is to work with Engineers without Borders and use expertise from the School of
Engineering with the expertise of this particular professor to install solar panels on a particular orphanage or youth shelter.”
One of the Relief Fund members, Yannette Figueroa Cole, will be traveling to Puerto Rico in November and will collect information on some
The Relief Fund has also acted as a matchmaker, of sorts, between entities in Puerto Rico and resources in Wisconsin.
“Someone in Puerto Rico contacted us about a hospital needing a generator,” Figueroa Cole said. “A person who used to work with a generator
company in Wisconsin called that company and asked them if they would donate one. At first, they said, ‘We’ve donated millions of dollars in
generators. We can’t.’ And then three days later, they said, ‘Give us the address.’ Last week, they actually sent a generator to a hospital in
Orocovis in the mountains. We cannot take credit that we purchased the generator or spent money on it. But the generator got to the hospital
because of the connections with people on this committee.”
The Relief Fund is responding to the crisis with all deliberate speed, knowing firsthand of the desperate situation, but also feeling the need to
ensure that the funds they collect are used wisely.
“What we are trying to do here in Madison is to connect with reliable sources, reliable organizations,” Madera said. “It pains me to say that you
cannot trust everyone. You have to be sure whom you are dealing with. We want to be able to tell everyone that the $1,000 that they contributed
or their $5, this is what their money went to because we feel responsible. We want pro bono overhead. That’s why we’re not giving money to
the Red Cross. That’s why we are giving to UNIDOS because there is no overhead. If we collect $100, at least we want to know that the $100
OR $99 is going to go to the victims. We are going to buy supplies here, put it on a pallet and ship them via a reliable source.”
And there are reliable sources working tirelessly on the ground in Puerto Rico, a people who are trying to do for themselves with assistance
from friends and strangers.
“It comes down to the people, the communities, the neighborhoods, they are the ones who are getting organized,” Madera said. “They aren’t
waiting for anyone. I take very personally the characterization of us as a lazy people, as an entitled people just sitting around on their butts
waiting for FEMA or the governor to show up. We are absolutely not doing that. Our communities are being organized. Our neighborhoods are
banding together. The churches are stepping it up on another level. From my hometown, Santa Isabel, Carlos Correa sent trucks full of supplies
thanks to the Houston Astros organization. On Sunday, the church service happened and then the distributing groups went all over the city.”
If there is a silver lining to this horrific chapter in Puerto Rico’s history, it is that it has brought the Madison area’s Puerto Rican community
“It’s been a very difficult and trying time for a lot of us in dealing with this new reality,” López said. “Even though we were not organized as a
community, as a Puerto Rican community, as other Latino communities have been organized. This has brought us together. We come from very
different backgrounds. But essentially, we have a common goal, which is to help Puerto Rico rebuild after such a devastating natural disaster.”
The Members of the Relief Fund are in it for the long haul because conditions in Puerto Rico will take a long time to become “normal.”
“Now what you hear from the news and social media, life seems to have normalized,” Madera said. “Life has not been normalized yet. There’s
nothing normal about how people are living in Puerto Rico. And this is an effort that is going to take at least a decade. Eventually, maybe the
organization will morph into something different. Right now, this is a life-time commitment for all of us because we cannot forget. Our tactics
will change as the conditions on the ground in Puerto Rico change. Some communities are coming out of it literally. Others will stay in the dark
for a long time. A lot of people are going to be experiencing a high level of need. Some communities are going to be more needy than others.”
For more information about the Puerto Rico Relief Fund, visit unidoswi.org.
|Clockwise from upper left:
Generators that were donated and
sent to Puerto Rico; The remains of
Joe Madonado’s uncle’s church in
barrio Esperanza Arecibo in Puerto
Rico after Hurricane Maria; Goods
donated in Madison that were
transported to Chicago for shipment
to Puerto Rico; Puerto Rico Relief
Fund executive committee members
Juan José López (l-r), Veronica
Figueroa-Velez, Charlyn Cruz-
Nuñez, José Madera, Glorily López,
Yannette Figueroa Cole and Joe
Maldonado; Lydia Rosario (l-r) and
Sylvia Vargas with goods
transported to the Puerto Rican
Agenda in Chicago, which arranged
to have them shipped to Puerto Rico
By Jonathan Gramling
It is going on two months since Hurricane Maria pummeled
Puerto Rico and knocked its development back perhaps a
hundred years. While national headlines have moved along to
other tragedies and issues, the suffering of the Puerto Rican
people has not. It is still a life and death situation in Puerto Rico.
“The number of requests for cremations is up by the hundreds,”
said José Madera, a member of the Puerto Rico Relief Fund. “It
has to be certified by the coroner. You can’t just cremate a body.
Those deaths have not been attributed to Maria. Right now, they
are only talking about 40-50 deaths. But people know it is higher.
There were bodies that actually were interned in their backyards
because they couldn’t wait for the funeral home to come and
pick them up because there was no way to transport them.”
Indeed, life has not normalized on the U.S. Commonwealth Island.
“My family lives in Isabela,” said Veronica Figueroa-Velez, a
committee member and executive director of UNIDOS, which is acting
as the fiscal agent for the relief fund. “They don’t have electricity yet.
They have very dark nights. But the community has pulled together to
help each other in that town. If you have no job, you are taken care of.
Every day, my brothers go out to try to find bottles of water and buy
whatever they can. It’s very hard to find. One of my brothers works for
the electric company, so he is very busy right now because of what is
happening. But many others have lost their jobs including people in
the education fields because the schools are not opening yet. It’s
going to take time.”
Every part of the island was hard hit. Glorily López’s family members live on the north eastern part of
“I have two uncles who are still living on the island,” López said. “One had open heart surgery last year
and he has diabetes. He’s a Vietnam War veteran. His water has come back recently. He lives in a condo
for older individuals with his wife. They have a generator, which they use. But the fuel is pretty expensive,
so they can’t run it all the time. He is okay and he is now able to go to the VA hospital for check-ups. He’s
been able to get diabetic supplies and things like that. He lives in Carolina. My other uncle is in Rio Grande,
which is right next to Fajado. He’s the one whom we were really worried about because we had no
communication with him. For both of them, the phone system is down, the regular land lines. He doesn’t
have electricity at all. He doesn’t have a generator. He was in the Gulf War. He was a teacher. He’s retired
now. He was a paramedic for the National Guard and the military. He’s seen all kinds of things. Essentially,
a few weeks ago, he contacted us. He said to my mom, ‘We need help. We need water.’ We knew things
were pretty bad because he doesn’t ask for help. We sent boxes by USPS Priority Mail because by then, the
Priority Mail system had opened up. Even though I paid for three-day service, it took two weeks to get
there. They kept saying it was in transit. We didn’t really know where in transit it was. But it finally arrived.
We sent solar lights and water and a water filtration system and beans and rice, basic necessities. He was
basically going to an area where everything was being rationed. He lives with his wife and has an autistic
adult son. The other son finished college, but he is still at home. They are basically in survival mode.”
Members of the Madison area’s Puerto Rican community came together about a month ago to establish the