Homes for vulnerable communities

On the first anniversary of Hurricane María, hundreds and hundreds of homes in Puerto Rico still have blue tarps. Most of these homes are found the poorest communities of Puerto Rico and many have been denied time and time again federal aid to rebuild their homes or have received amounts that in no way can finance the rebuilding or building of a new home.

“This is why as the picture became clearer that many families would not receive assistance to rebuild or repair home that were severely damaged by hurricanes Irma and particularly María, we began to focus on grant proposals for rebuilding or building homes,” said Mariely Rivera, executive director of United for Puerto Rico.

Organizations that for years had worked providing other type of services, education, social services, or acted as social agents of change decided they had to become home developers to serve those in their communities who had lost most of their belongings, including their homes. This is the story of three such cases, COASI in Vega Alta, Sol es Vida backed by Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción in Toa Baja and Centro María Mazzarello Alespi, Inc. in Orocovis.

Centro de Orientación y Acción Social, Inc.  (COASI) was established in 1994 as a faith-based nonprofit linked to the church of Christ’s Disciples.  Since then they had provided basis social services to the surrounding communities in Vega Alta and Vega Baja.


When Hurricane María tore through homes leaving them with battered roofs or no roofs at all in the Bajura Marina sector of Vega Alta, Vanessa Burgos, who is the executive director of COASI, realized they could not turn their backs on the families who had lost so much in the hurricane.

“Bajura Marina is in a rural area, poor and was cut-off” from ready access to basic services after the hurricane, explained Burgos. She added that when they saw the needs, they decided to submit a grant proposal for $283,764 to build or rebuild 15 homes and buy appliances for them. They have almost completed the work, although they are still dealing with the electricity system in one of the homes. 

Vanessa added that they have also distributed once a month a basic food basket and this will continue till November. 

Villas del Sol in Toa Baja is a community of about 60 families, 150 people, that for years have fought to formalize their community and have a stable home.  They live in a sector with no access to public power or water but where there is strong sense of community and of helping each other out. The land is owned by a cooperative of residents. The property was permuted to them after they were provided a plot on which no construction was allowed. Many of the homes were severely damaged and, due to the nature of their community, they have not received FEMA aid. 

With nowhere to turn, Waldemiro Vélez, a community leader, turned to United for Puerto Rico to request funds to rebuild five homes and the community center.  They received $99,999.95 from United for Puerto Rico but had to turn to another organization, Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción (Puerto Rican Minds in Action) that had 501 (c)3 certification to act as their fiscal agent. 

Alejandro Silva Díaz, executive director of Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, explained they began as a nonprofit organization focused on serving as catalysts for social action and on developing the potential of university students through meaningful internship programs. Hurricane María’s devastation rapidly mobilized them to do more.

Alejandro said volunteers from Mentes had visited several communities to help with clearing debris.  After they met Waldemiro, they were struck by community’s determination to remain in the area despite the difficulties. They were also moved by their solidarity.  Since then, they have worked closely supervising the work and the disbursement of funds. 

Even a year after the hurricane, there are still some sectors of Orocovis, a beautiful town nestled in the central mountainous region of Puerto Rico, that lack power or are wracked by constant outages that also limit water service. It is here where the Centro María Mazzarelo Alespi, Inc, a Catholic nonprofit organization dedicated to the education of children from public and private schools, realized they would have to expand their mission to help their neighbors and avoid a massive migration from the town. If help was slow in Puerto Rico, it was worse in the towns on Puerto Rico’s central mountain region, ind the east and southeast as well as in the islands of Vieques and Culebra.

Sister María Ofelia Pérez, who heads the Center, recalled they moved quickly, two and a half weeks after Hurricane Maria, to create a safe place for the town’s youth to learn and to have activities.  They were also able to improvise a system to provide educational materials, lesson plans, and goods during this period to a community that had been isolated by the hurricane and where one of the Center’s teachers lived. The aim was to make sure that the children stuck there would not be left behind in their educational process.

Realizing that if they did not address the housing needs of the community they would soon lose families forever, they turned to United for Puerto Rico and requested $787,625 to rebuild 11 homes.  Having no idea as to how to go about building homes, Sister María Ofelia said she was lucky to meet Héctor Ortiz, an engineer, who is also a sports lover. He had come in contact with the Centro when he organized basketball meets for his sons and others during the months when there was little to entertain the children and youth. 

There was no way to say no to Sister María Ofelia and he drew up the plans for the homes.  “This is the most gratifying experience I have had in my life,” he said of helping to rebuild the homes. Due to steep hikes in the price of construction materials, they are being very careful in managing the budget. But if all goes as planned, they should complete the homes by year’s end.

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