The Asociación Pro-Juventud y Comunidad de Barrio Palmas came to life in 1984 to address a serious concern on the part of community members, the increasing incidence of delinquency among its youth. Little did the leaders of this community nonprofit organization anticipate that 34 years later Hurricane María would lead them to repair homes damaged by the hurricane.
“We have always prided ourselves in being in touch with community needs,” said María Torres, director of the nonprofit organization. As soon as the storm passed, María visited homes in the community to assess needs. Barrio Palmas is a sector of Cataño, a poor coastal town surrounded by bodies of water. Cataño and its surroundings were heavily flooded after the hurricane.
With no power and no water service, María and her staff focused originally in providing for basic needs, particularly food. At the Asociación’s facilities, her staff and volunteers prepared with whatever they could find lunch for 400 to 500 residents that had the greatest need. She found out that World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by renowned chef José Andrés, was preparing meals for disaster victims. She signed up for an additional 400 to 500 meals to distribute in her community at dinner time. Every afternoon María and her team would drive to the World Central Kitchen’s temporary base at the Puerto Rico Coliseum to pick up the meals and then distribute them in the community. Their days were long, but María felt the Asociación was responding to her neighbors’ most pressing needs.
As the first months after the hurricane passed and aid for repairing homes was not forthcoming, she realized the Asociación had to focus on providing for safe homes. Many homes had lost windows, or doors, or part of their roofs. Others had lost furniture and appliances, beds, kitchens, refrigerators. By December someone told her that in the wake of the storm there was a new organization distributing funds for hurricane relief and recovery. “It was the first I had heard of United for Puerto Rico,” she recalled. She was able to send an email of inquiry to United for Puerto Rico and was encouraged to complete a grant proposal for the purpose of recovery.
“I drafted a proposal for repair and recovery of 50 family homes.” That was in January and by March she had the funds. “Once the proposal was approved, I was scared”.” She explained she had never been involved in home repairs. The Asociación over time had grown to provide after school programs for kids and youths, and workshops for parents and initiatives for the elderly. With a small team of 27 including part-timers and AmeriCorps members the Asociación served a community of about 30,000 in nine of Cataño’s 11 sectors. But this was different, she would have to find people to do the repairs, purchase the materials and appliances and design a fair selection process.
María described the project as entailing a lot of work, but by September they had been able to complete the repairs and purchase appliances. She was even able to extend the program to a total of 65 families, all with a grant of $149,074. After being inspected twice by United for Puerto Rico, the Asociación completed the monitoring process with flying colors.
“Over and over again, we have seen the benefit of channeling the funds to nonprofit organizations that are deeply connected to the communities they serve. The Asociación did a great job under very difficult conditions,” said Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of United for Puerto Rico.
A year after the hurricane, María feels the organization she leads has developed new capabilities and, in the process, has grown in the community’s esteem. She also believes there are stronger community ties in Barrio Palmas as a result of how they responded to the disaster.
During the months that she was constantly assessing the needs of the community, she came across a teenager who was about to turn 15. The young woman was dying to have a Quinceañero party to celebrate her birthday in traditional fashion, with a long gown and crown, as a princess. The dream seemed to be far from her reality as everyone in her surroundings was struggling with the aftermath of the hurricane and the girl’s mother had serious health concerns. María decided to organize the Quinceañero. The Asociación did not spend a cent on the celebration, yet, they were able to engage the community in preparing and hosting the party. Someone offered to make her Quinceañera dress, another provided the crown, still another the live music and DJ, others the food and decorations. And a great festivity was held to celebrate a young woman’s 15th birthday while the community celebrated its capacity to care for each other.