A series of devastating earthquakes began impacting Puerto Rico in December 2019. These earthquakes continued for over a month. The Institute for Childhood Preparedness works closely with the Region II Head Start Association and we are proud to provide support to early childhood programs in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
As we previously reported, the earthquakes caused severe damage in some parts of the southern region of Puerto Rico - leaving many families without homes, or causing them to sleep outside - out of fear that their home would collapse.
Amazingly, in every disaster we find extraordinary people who are willing to go the extra mile and help out those in need. Shortly after the earthquakes began, we were contacted by Denise Fernandez-Pallozzi. Denise Fernandez-Pallozzi is originally from New York City, and both of her parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico. Denise had a strong desire to help provide some comfort and relief to those impacted by the earthquakes.
The Puerto Rican culture is very strong in her family, and her children have grown up visiting Puerto Rico every year. She currently serves as the Director for Career and Technical Education at Questar III BOCES (The Board of Cooperative Education Services) for Rensselaer, Columbia, and Greene Counties in upstate New York. She is bilingual, but not 100%. Denise’s organization supports the Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute, as well as the Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network across New York State, and the organization is committed to helping individuals, families, and students succeed. She currently lives in the Capital Region of Upstate New York, where she also serves as a fitness instructor at the YMCA.
Providing Benefits to Puerto Rico
After Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean in 2017, Denise helped to organize a benefit concert, which raised nearly $10,000. The concert, which included four live acts, was sponsored by Centro Civico as part of the Puerto Rico Disaster Relief effort. Denise was able to raise enough money from the concert to help rebuild schools on Vieques, as well as transport a full National Guard cargo plane to Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria victims.
Denise’s Response Post-Earthquakes
After seeing the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes, Denise knew she had to do something. With the assistance of her fellow employees and members of the YMCA, Denise immediately began organizing donation collections. She was able to fill numerous boxes with goods and supplies, and she even had to empty the boxes multiple times a week because they were overflowing with donations. In a short amount of time, and without support from major corporations, Denise relied on the generosity of small donors to make this effort happen. Denise said, “This effort was driven by a labor of love, and it took a village to make it happen. I was happy to be the conduit, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help families in Puerto Rico.”
In one month, Denise raised a total of $3,000 in cash.
She reached out to friends, family, and colleagues through social media and phone calls.
Everyone was happy to give what they could.
Denise documented her travels on social media so donors could see where their donations went in Puerto Rico.
Donations were of high quality, and supplies included batteries, camping gear, flashlights, pampers, wipes, and medicine. A doctor donated insulin and needles, and a dentist donated toothpaste and dental supplies.
How Denise Transported 41 Pieces of Luggage to Puerto Rico
All of the donated goods and supplies fit into 41 pieces of luggage, and Denise had to figure out how to transport everything from New York to Puerto Rico. With the help of her life partner, David Santore, volunteers in three pickup trucks drove Denise and David to the airport in the early morning hours of January 29, 2020.
Met with some initial resistance at the airport, Denise and David got creative, taking 20 bags each. Denise said, “There was such a degree of uncertainty. We didn’t know if we would be able to bring all the luggage, or whether it would all make it to Puerto Rico. Upon arrival, we also didn’t know if our cars would be stopped, searched, and confiscated. Luckily, everything went smoothly, and we successfully transported all 41 bags of luggage to Peńuelas.”
Arriving in Peńuelas
Denise was fortunate to have close friends, Carlos Baez and Dr. Robert Hirsh, living in Puerto Rico. Carlos met Denise and David at the airport with a cargo truck, and Dr. Hirsh and Institute Disaster Project Coordinator Luis Beniquez assisted with transporting the luggage to Peńuelas. Upon arrival, the group went straight to the Head Start office, where they were greeted by the Director, Wanda Jaime, and fifteen staff members.
Everyone immediately started unloading the 41 bags of luggage:
Tables were already set up and organized into categories.
Within two and a half hours, every single piece of luggage had been unloaded.
Items were organized into categories: medicine, blankets and sheets, clothing, camping gear, diapers/wipes, feminine products, and personal hygiene products.
Wanda’s staff was extremely generous and very grateful for all of the goods and supplies, and they even prepared lunch for everyone! Not only had Wanda lost her home due to the earthquakes, but all the teachers also had horror stories. Yet still, everyone showed up for work, and they wanted to help others even when they had nothing to give. Denise said she was humbled at the strength and resilience of the communities in Puerto Rico.
The group stayed in Peńuelas for one day, and met up with our disaster-project coordinator, Luis Beniquez, who was working with the Puerto Rico Department of Health and providing assistance to early childhood programs in the impacted areas. Luis was able to provide information regarding the areas most impacted and provide some on-the-ground knowledge about the destruction of the earthquakes in the towns of Peńuelas and Guānica. It was heartbreaking to witness. Denise was glad that she chose this method of distribution because Wanda Jaime was planning to make care packages to meet the specific needs of the families within her community.
Denise’s Important Lessons:
The collective effort of a few can impact the lives of so many.
The spirit of our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico has not been broken. However, after two major disasters (Hurricane Maria and now the earthquakes), they are now fragile, and their mental health needs may be as great as their structural/monetary needs.
The United States government showed very little activity if any while I was there, and I pray that they intervene and lead the charge in helping our fellow citizens.
Follow Denise on Social Media:
We can’t say enough about the generosity of Denise and her team. We are thankful for all the help and support that they were able to provide. We remain committed in our work to support disaster-impacted regions and help early childhood programs rebuild, reopen, and recover.