Every year, we try to organize an El Camino Travel volunteer trip that is far different than any of our other itineraries while still reflecting our values as a company. This year, we decided to focus our efforts on the recovery mission in Puerto Rico. Though it has been four months since Hurricane Maria, a good portion of the island is still without electricity and their sister island, Vieques, is still 100% without power.
Before leaving for our trip, we launched a GoFundMe campaign where 133 generous donors from the El Camino community gave $8,000 in 3 weeks, well over our initial goal of $2,000. (Have we exhausted the phrase "Thank You" yet?) We flew down with nine El Camino Travel alum and worked 3 days with 2 organizations to prepare and serve 8,000 meals to those most in need. We worked first in Dorado with World Central Kitchen and then on the island of Vieques with Fundación El Plato Caliente who have successfully dispatched more than 2.5 million and 250,000 meals respectively. Our efforts were greatly appreciated by all those we encountered and the funds will go a long way towards their ongoing relief efforts.
View a quick recap of our experience in the following video:
Video by Sadie Cornelius
Interested in learning more? Continue reading below to read first hand accounts of what we heard and saw and how you can best support Puerto Rico during this tragic time for the island.
Note From Our Founder
(This was written by Katalina Mayorga on our last day on the island.)
"Exhausted”. It’s the word I’ve heard over and over again while in Puerto Rico.
“I am so exhausted.”
“Can you imagine living without power for three months?”
“This is too much.”
I met a chef here in Puerto Rico who had returned from New Jersey thirteen years ago to open a restaurant. Losing everything as a result of Hurricane Maria, he now has nothing. With two daughters to care for, the reality begins to set in that he may have to return to New Jersey to once again, start over. Rebuilding a life in Puerto Rico is not an option. Despite this being one of the darkest moments in his life, he remains optimistic for the sake of his daughters. It’s under these circumstances that he quickly rationalizes his crisis, never having the luxury to fully contemplate it.
Only 54% of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens; tax paying citizens who have routinely been treated like second-class citizens. We’re not talking about foreigners to whom we send international aid. We’re conceivably talking about American refugees. This trip has made me think much deeper about how we treat each other as Americans. What does the response to the plight of Puerto Rico say about our country and for what we stand? For most of my adult life I defined being an American citizen on the belief that I had the right and the safety network of American society to pursue my dreams, whatever the challenges. This is the land of entrepreneurialism, of big ideas, after all. As I reflect on 2017, I realize that I have come to define being an American citizen as something more than me, myself, and I.
It’s about being part of something greater than the individual or the individual’s dream. It’s about being part of a diverse community. It’s about the many Puerto Ricans who I saw during these past few days who lost everything but still have volunteered endless hours to help their neighbors. It’s about the eight other volunteers who came with me to Puerto Rico, dropping everything and raising $7.5K in less than three weeks to do something bigger than themselves. Together we are stronger.
I’m having serious concerns about what we are becoming as a country. This debate of what it means to be an American is not only my internal struggle, it’s national. The “me and only people that look like me” America is what our current government is doing everything in their power to create. However, I know that the America I experienced these last few days in Puerto Rico is the America in which I want to be part. This is the America that I will lean on during dark days that are surely ahead of us in 2018. The America I experienced the last few days is the America I will always fight for.
- Katalina Mayorga
What Did Our Volunteers Have to Say?
We asked our volunteers what stood out to them about this volunteer experience. See what they had to say.
"What stood out to me most was that, even through the overwhelming waves of emotions, everyone we met loved Puerto Rico. It was incredibly meaningful to see how important it was for those who are in the middle of rebuilding their entire lives, to see that we loved their home as well and how adamant they were that we come back again. Every time someone thought we might be just regular tourists I could tell how excited they were that it was a sign that people hadn’t dismissed or forgotten them. I travel a lot and it’s not often I come back from somewhere feeling like I want to advocate hard for my friends and family to go visit. And, that I want to return right away." - Carrie Lyman
"The Puerto Rican spirit was tested but not broken. It was interesting to see how some areas were far more affected than others. But whether you were a lucky one with power restoring early on or one still without power 3 months on, the community was in on the recovery together. To hear that some of the volunteers helping to feed others were still without power themselves was humbling. " - Amy Sumner
"Sometimes we assume that a devastation of this magnitude is getting the aid that it needs; that's not always the case. So, I encourage people to do more to help. Even if you think they are already getting support, they definitely need more." - Chandra Hampton
"The people! They welcomed us with such big hearts and were so appreciative and grateful we were there. Not only to lend a hand, but also to provide a much needed boost of new energy to their teams who have been working around the clock for 90+ days since the hurricane. Their resilience, enthusiasm and passion was truly uplifting and contagious. Puerto Rico is alive and thriving thanks to its incredible spirit." - Sadie Cornelius
"Our time was short but I know our impact was immeasurable. The thing that felt the most impactful and healing was listening to people’s stories. We prepped thousands of meals, but the it was the listening - the hearing of experiences and the narratives of people’s challenges that truly made folks feel a little better. Validation is so important." - Marcella Kriebel
Puerto Rico Needs Volunteers and Tourists, not Just Donations
Volunteer, Victoria Ortega, reflects on why she she needed to do more than just donate.
Upon hearing my plans to volunteer in Puerto Rico with El Camino, several friends and family encouraged me to forego the trip and simply donate the cost of flights and lodging. I found this response valid, as I was not volunteering any special skills. I would simply help prepare and distribute hot meals to Puerto Rican residents. Anybody could do this. And the evident shortage of disaster relief funding in Puerto Rico only made the point more compelling.
If I had simply made a donation, however, I would never have come face-to-face with dozens of Puerto Ricans with myriad experiences and yearning eyes, silently asking to share their story. By simply stating that I was visiting their island to volunteer, I provided a sufficient "yes" to the request. And without skipping a beat, I would hear their abbreviated story of the past three-and-a-half months.
“My house shook for twelve hours. I was terrified.” “I stepped outside after it passed, and the world was unrecognizable.” “My wife was not in Puerto Rico during Maria, and I feel disconnected to her. She doesn't get it.” "Drugs and violent crime are spiking in my neighborhood. I don't feel safe."
I saw that the story-tellers required an audience unencumbered by Maria and its deleterious effects; nobody wants to burden the already-burdened.
I felt that each gasp, head-shake, and "dios mio" in response to the disturbing details validated their frustrations, pain, trauma.
And I hope those tiny validations provided them even a scintilla more peace.
Everyone asks about the state of electrical power in Puerto Rico. If I had simply made a donation, I would have not have learned to ask better questions. "How many days are you without power, but, also, how do you care for a newborn baby without power for 110 days? Do you worry about providing him a safe and healthy life?" "How long can you maintain a business earning 7% of the revenues earned a year prior? How much sleep have you lost thinking about how you will continue to support you family if it must close?" "After Maria, why did you refuse to go live with family in New Jersey where you could find a fulfilling job? Are there feelings of guilt and responsibility in your decision to remain in and fight for this island?" We ask about the power because we see it as necessary for the people in Puerto Rico to persist. If the people of Puerto Rico do not feel heard, however, they will not feel hope. And without hope, persistence is damn near impossible.
I must also mention that Puerto Rico is LIT. If I had simply made a donation, I would not have spent $500 on bomb clothing and accessories from the beautifully-curated shops in Old San Juan. #noregrets
I would not have the freckles I earned from a day on beaches of Rincon.
I would not have danced my ass off until 4am in the streets of Santurce fueled by Medalla Light and shots of rum.
And I would not intend to return to Puerto Rico to visit newly-made friends, help where I can, and receive more stories.
And to shop. And beach. And dance.
How Can You Support Puerto Rico?
During our time there we volunteered with the non-profits, Fundacion El Plato Caliente and World Central Kitchen. Both are working tirelessly to bring meals to communities in need. During our time at both organizations, we helped them cut veggies, opened hundreds of cans, packaged meals to be handed out, unloaded and loaded supplies, and even went out one day to hand out meals. Though this can be monotonous work, it was incredibly rewarding to know that we were making a difference. There is a lot of banter in the kitchen, tons of conversations to be hand. We even learned some new skills like how to properly cut an onion and take out the roots of yuca!
World Central Kitchen is taking volunteers on island! People can also join their Chef Network to deploy on the face of future disaster and, of course, donate. If you are interested in volunteering, contact them through their general "Contact Us" form. You can also follow their work at @wckitchen and/or their visionary leader, @chefjoseandres.
La Fundacion El Plato Caliente: If you're interested in volunteering with La Fundacion El Plato Caliente, the easiest way is to send them a Facebook message and Raffy or Mariemma will get back to you.
Both organizations are running a very lean operation and short staffed. In some cases, they are doing this alongside their normal jobs. Please only contact them if you are serious about volunteering to respect their limited resources.
For those looking to make a difference in PR, we encourage you to support our neighbors by visiting as tourism is one of the major contributors to their economic success and long-term recovery. San Juan is back up and running and the popular beach and surf town of Rincon is also with power. You can use popular apps like Uber as it is a US Territory and your US phone works like it would at home.
We stayed in the up-and-coming artsy neighborhood of Santurce and danced a few nights until the early hours of the morning at the outdoor street party flowing out of Watusi. If you want to stay closer to the beach neighborhoods, Ocean Park and Condado are great options.
You can easily escape to the crystal clear waters of Vieques for the day. You can take the ferry in Fajardo at 9AM and return on the ferry back at 4:30 PM easily. There are taxis on the island to take you to any of the popular beaches. If you have a rental car, we suggest that you stop at Kioskos Luquilla and find this unforgettable arepa stuffed with octopus. This arepa alone is worth the visit to Puerto Rico.
Escape the cold, indulge in delicious food, late nights, and dips in the warm ocean knowing that you are actually doing something really, really, really good for the island.
PROTIP on Doing Some Extra Good!
Write Trip Advisor reviews for anyone you can. We were asked to do that over and over again, so that there would be reviews dated post Maria to show that the island can receive tourists.