Extreme conditions spur innovative community response

Barrio Mariana, a hilly low-income community in Humacao, was one of the last areas in Puerto Rico to recover power and water service, nine and a half months after Hurricane María struck the island. Yet, the community was able to mobilize volunteers as well as channel funds to create a community center with a solar powered laundry and other services to address the extreme conditions faced by area residents.

“María changed our lives and our community. It showed that the communities that were able to make it, did so based on the strength of their community organization,” said Rosalina Abreu, President of the Asociación Recreativa y Educativa Comunal Barrio Mariana, Inc. (ARECMA, Recreational and Educational Communal Association of Barrio Mariana.

ARECMA has developed it social and organizational infrastructure over 36 years of community work. It was founded in 1982 when they petitioned the municipality to establish a Head Start center in a building in disuse. They were successful and emboldened by their effectiveness, they organized an annual Festival de la Pana (breadfruit), a fruit that tastes like a potato that is in abundance in the community. With the proceeds from the Festival, they were able to acquire 16 acres of land and found a community center that they call La Loma (The Hill).  In addition, with funds from the Festival they organize each year a summer camp for children and youth in the community. The summer camp was critical in forging new leaders focused on community wellbeing.

When Hurricane Maria struck, leaving the community isolated and with no basic services, community leaders and residents rapidly conducted an inventory of community needs and used the kitchen at the La Loma community center to prepare 300 meals per day to feed residents who had no power or regular water service. Volunteers from all over, including residents, poured in to clear debris, collect food and help the community with relief and recovery operations.

Yet, the needs were many and ARECMA submitted a grant request to Unidos por Puerto (United for Puerto Rico) to turn a closed school into a second community center that could serve as space to offer other services.  With $199,917.00 in funds they designed a laundry to wash and dry clothes powered by solar energy and recycled water, set up a center for tools and machinery that could be used for a variety of community projects, established a business incubator and programs to foster economic development, as well as serve as a disaster management center.  As part of these initiatives the community now has wi-fi, water filters, a satellite phone and a system to collect rain water.

They have also established a data base with current data of the health conditions of residents. Rosalina explained that there are several bedridden residents and other elderly residents in the community who need considerable support. Social work students are also active in the community as part of their internship in community social work. It has taken about a year to accomplish the project funded by Unidos and they are about to finish revamping the school for its new expanded community use.

Barrio Mariana may never be the same again, as pronounced by Rosalina, but they are ready for what the future may bring.  Rosalina is convinced their strength lies in mutual support.  For more information on ARECMA, visit their website at https://arecma.org/ or call (939) 226-7169. For information on Unidos por Puerto Rico, visit https://unidosporpuertorico.com/.

icrossingAdminExtreme conditions spur innovative community response