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Compassion found in Puerto Rico

Mennonite trauma specialist finds those who have little are sharing with those who have less.

January 5, 2018

Food is scarce and electricity still out in many places, but Puerto Ricans struggling to recover from September’s Hurricane Maria show tenacity, compassion and courage, a Mennonite trauma specialist reported after a recent visit.

Mennonite churches are sharing food and watching over the elderly amid the devastation of the worst hurricane to hit the island in more than 80 years. Aibonito Mennonite Church has placed a washer and dryer in its social hall and invited the community to use it.

Those who have little are sharing with those who have less. Many have amazing resilience.

These are among the findings reported by Carolyn Holderread Heggen, who returned from Puerto Rico on Dec. 8 after completing an assessment trip sponsored by Mennonite Health Services in cooperation with Mennonite Disaster Service.

MDS’s presence is appreciated, she said, as is MHS’s effort to provide support for psychological recovery. Puerto Ricans are thankful for the outpouring of support from the North and grateful not to be forgotten.

Heggen spoke at a women’s gathering attended by 65 people from six congregations. She addressed the physical, emotional, spiritual and relational effects of trauma and focused on ways to create an “internal sanctuary” in the midst of chaos.

At Hospital Menonita, Heggen met with eight cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, a hospitalized father of a Mennonite woman suffering from ovarian cancer and the hospital chaplain. She visited pastors and congregants in other towns who had lost or damaged homes.

School’s commitment

Staff, parents and volunteers — including a team from Indiana and Virginia — have worked diligently to reopen classes at Academia Menonita Betania. The campus has no electricity or running water. Several roofs are missing or damaged, and 12 students have left to live with relatives and attend classes in the United States. Yet the school’s director, Luis Yavier Velez Soto, remains committed to resuming the students’ education.

Heggen led a workshop for teachers and staff, discussing ways to identify students who need help, what to expect in traumatized children and healing ways to intervene. She gave several copies of a Spanish translation of A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes and led an assembly.

Still without power

More than two months after Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Heggen said many small communities were still without telephone service, internet, running water and electricity. Even residents of larger towns had no indication of when power would be restored. Those in poor, rural communities had no contact from the Federal Emergency Management Administration or other U.S. government agencies and wondered if the government had forgotten them.

Transportation is severely limited. Residents must wait in lines to buy gasoline for generators and vehicles. Many walk to conserve fuel, which is also hazardous due to downed wires and poles, damaged sidewalks and debris that forces pedestrians to share the street with cars.

Because so much agriculture was destroyed, few local fruits or vegetables are available, and what remains is outrageously expensive. The dairy industry has been seriously affected. Several mothers reported their children had been crying for milk and didn’t understand why it wasn’t available.

90,000 chickens lost

The chicken industry has been devastated. A Mennonite farmer in Pulguillas lost between 90,000 and 100,000 chickens. He still has no electricity and therefore is unable to hatch eggs to replace those that died.

Many are experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress. Some reported their hearts beating so fast and hard they hurt. Others had shaking hands and lips. Many seemed severely depressed. Several showed signs of confusion and disorientation. Fear is prevalent, as are feelings of abandonment.

Some reported feelings of anger — at the government and the insensitive things President Trump has said about Puerto Ricans, or at local authorities for not cleaning streets faster or restoring water and electricity. Some don’t know where to direct their anger, and several confessed anger at God while asking spiritual questions about God’s love, omnipotence and silence.

Many Puerto Ricans are evacuating. The government says more than 500,000 have fled to the U.S. mainland. An airport employee said more than 600 cars have been abandoned at the airport, the owners having left the country.

Thirteen elderly people were carried in wheelchairs onto Heggen’s returning flight, all on their way to live with adult children in the U.S. One woman said she was depressed to leave but couldn’t survive alone in her leaking house without water or a way to get food.

MHS urges constituents not to forget Puerto Rico in prayer and to consider a donation of dollars or volunteer hours to Mennonite Disaster Service.


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This article originally appeared in Mennonite World Review

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