By Josie Bingham

PUERTO RICO—It is estimated that by the end of 2019 hurricane-battered Puerto Rico will lose up to 470,335 residents because of Hurricane Maria.

When the Category 5 storm hit Puerto Rico on September 19, 2017, nearly every branch of every tree was tossed about streets and yards. Homes were split open like dollhouses. Around 70 percent of the island’s water system didn’t meet the critical standards of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. The power company, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, had to declare bankruptcy.

Yet Southern Baptist chaplain and Baptist campus chaplain, Devon Bartholomew, knew his Syracuse University (SU) students could make a real difference with their endless energy and willingness to serve.

“Collegiates have a lot to offer in crisis response,” Bartholomew said. “Some volunteers from the Student Association (SA) and I spent more than 200 hours recruiting members and planning logistics for this trip. We were all excited to go and serve, however, we needed to be prepared for the devastation and ready to help once we got there.”

They traveled to Puerto Rico December 16-22.

While on the island, the SU team distributed 140 water filtration systems, 200 FEMA-resourced packages of food and 65 hygiene kits. They prepared 50 bags of the FEMA-provided food to be distributed by future disaster relief groups. A couple of the students came across Puerto Rican residents who had lived through the harsh realities of Hurricane Maria and still wanted to serve others.

“There was this old man who went by the name Papa Noel because of his big white beard,” John Jankovic told the Daily Orange. “He was so positive and happy despite having no power and his house destroyed. It was really eye-opening and showed how less material things matter.”

Jankovic, a sophomore, was a student leader on SU’s Disaster Relief trip to Puerto Rico.

Another student, sophomore Sabrina Maggiore, watched a woman whose home had been destroyed offer food and water to the SU student volunteers.

“We all were sort of taken aback by the fact that this woman was spending much of her time trying to be accommodating to us while we were there to try and help her,” Maggiore said.

Maggiore created an Instagram account called The People of PR, with fellow SU student and trip volunteer, senior Elissa Candiotti, to document the destruction they witnessed.

“The people of Puerto Rico have stories of resilience and strength in their recovery of PR,” said Candiotti. “It is vital we hear it from the people themselves their own stories in their own words.”

Though the SU students who served in Puerto Rico are fighting to raise awareness for Puerto Rico on social media, they’re also organizing future disaster relief opportunities for themselves and for other SU students to participate in local and global volunteer work.

“It’s the most authentic thing we can do with our lives,” Maggiore said. “We all realize that these people are needing. We have the time and ability to help. Why wouldn’t you do it?”

Josie Rabbitt Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.