CUNY students work to ‘rebuild the people’ of Puerto Rico, still reeling from Maria’s wrath

CUNY students work to ‘rebuild the people’ of Puerto Rico, still reeling from Maria’s wrath

Several hundred students have helped build homes on the island and will soon take part in agricultural and forestry projects as part of the New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative.

CUNY students who have gone or are planning to go to Puerto Rico to volunteer this summer meet with Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, in tie, at his office in midtown on Monday. From left: Jacqueline Ayende Rodriguez, Lina Maldonado, chaperone Nestor Melendez, Arlys Tineo and Soreily Sarante.
CUNY students who have gone or are planning to go to Puerto Rico to volunteer this summer meet with Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez, in tie, at his office in midtown on Monday. From left: Jacqueline Ayende Rodriguez, Lina Maldonado, chaperone Nestor Melendez, Arlys Tineo and Soreily Sarante. Photo Credit: Jason Kempin

When Arlys Tineo learned about a program that would send CUNY students to Puerto Rico to help rebuild after Hurricane Maria, she knew it was something she wanted to be part of.

Tineo was one of around 250 CUNY students and staff members who volunteered in Puerto Rico last summer as part of the New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, launched by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in April 2018. She returned with a smaller cohort in January and plans to go back to the island this summer to volunteer with a group of about 225 other student volunteers from CUNY schools.

“Just flying in and seeing all the blue tarps is very hard,” the Medgar Evers College student said. “As soon as you get there, you start to see the effects of the devastation.”

While the official death toll in Puerto Rico stood at 64 immediately after the hurricane, a George Washington University study released in August 2018 estimated that 2,975 people died as a result of the storm and its aftermath.

Last year, students helped rebuild about 175 homes on the island; this year, they’ll also participate in agricultural and forestry rebuilding projects, according to CUNY’s assistant vice chancellor for strategic partnerships, Rachel Stephenson.

After CUNY announced the program last year, it received more than 2,000 applications for approximately 250 spots, said Nestor Melendez, the director of student leadership and campus life at Guttman Community College.

This summer will be Melendez’s second time volunteering on the island as a chaperone.

“One of my students said that our job over there is not to rebuild the nation, or the island, it’s to rebuild the people,” he said. “And I think that became our rallying cry.”

Jacqueline Ayende Rodriguez, 19, a City College student majoring in biology, talks about volunteering in Puerto Rico this summer.
Jacqueline Ayende Rodriguez, 19, a City College student majoring in biology, talks about volunteering in Puerto Rico this summer. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

City College student Jacqueline Ayende Rodriguez, who is from Puerto Rico, described the program as “a great way to go home and give back after not being home for so long.”

Helping to rebuild someone’s home, she noted, is a very “personal” experience.

“All the memories they have there — you’re a part of rebuilding that,” she said.

On Monday, the students got a chance to meet with CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez, who became the system’s first Latino chancellor when he took office earlier this year.

Chancellor Rodríguez, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said one of the program’s aims is to shed light on the work that still needs to be done on the island.

“The idea of service is very much part of the DNA of the City University of New York, and we have no better ambassadors than these students,” he said.

CUNY is in the recovery and rebuilding effort “for the long haul,” he added.

“It’s a small island, but there are still so many families that need help,” said City College student Soreily Sarante, who is also returning to volunteer on the island.  

Lina Maldonado, a rising senior at the College of Staten Island, will be going to Puerto Rico as a volunteer for the first time this summer.

“I do feel that when this happened to Puerto Rico, they didn’t receive the help that they needed,” she said.

“So it’s amazing to know that CUNY has given a bunch of students the opportunity to go … and help these individuals and make a difference."

Maya Rajamani