By Jennifer Govea

PONCE, Puerto Rico—When the most recent earthquakes started rumbling in Puerto Rico in December of 2019, it unnerved residents who were still anxious from Hurricane María, which pummeled the island two and a half years ago.

Then, when the 6.4 earthquake struck on January 7, 2020, people were visibly shaken.

“The whole island has PTSD,” said retired Army First Sergeant and local resident Gilberto “Bam Bam” Rodriguez. “They have an overwhelming sense of helplessness.”

The entire island’s day-to-day operations were severely affected, but Puerto Rico’s school system took a particularly hard hit.

In the weeks since a January 7 earthquake rocked Puerto Rico, significant aftershocks have continued rattling the island. Many homeowners are still choosing to live in tents outside of their homes rather than sleep inside. Photo by Jennifer Govea.

Parents did not want to send their children back to school. They were nervous that the buildings were not safe since local officials had not been able to exhaustively inspect their structural integrity.

As a result, children have been out of school for over a month.

While teachers, parents and students wait for the schools to be examined and reopened, principal Carmen Rodríguez, no relation to Gilberto, decided to take action by teaching wherever she could. Enter the idea of “pop-up classrooms.”

Rodriguez’s house in Ponce was damaged, so she began sleeping in Las Delicias Park down the street. That’s where she decided she didn’t need to be inside a school to teach her students.

People drove by the park and saw her outdoor classes. Word also spread through social media, and student attendance boomed. What started out with a few students from one school learning under a tree blossomed into 338 students from a dozen area schools.

After the recent spate of earthquakes hit Puerto Rico, schools were unable to open due to concerns about the structural integrity. One teacher started teaching classes outdoors, and eventually, hundreds of kids started showing up. A volunteer team with Send Relief came alongside the “pop up classrooms” and played games with the kids during breaks. Photo by Jennifer Govea.

With little resources and support, Rodriguez had been desperate for help of all kinds. There were only nine volunteer teachers and a handful of parents to volunteer with the pop-up classrooms. So, she was grateful when Send Relief volunteers from Kentucky and Texas showed up the week of January 21 to play with the children in between their structured activities.

Jane Hopper, a Send Relief volunteer from Kentucky, saw firsthand how the presence of volunteers in the pop-up classrooms aided teachers.

“We were able to love on the children and distract them from the stress of the situation,” Hopper said.

On a balmy Thursday afternoon with temperatures in the low 80s, Alexis Rodríguez, no relation to Gilberto or Carmen, sat under one of three pop-up canopies designed to shield fourth grade students from the sun—among them, his 9-year-old son, Haziel.

Rodríguez said that Send Relief volunteers were the first ones to arrive on the scene to help, and they had a big impact on the kids as they dealt with the stress of their situation. Parent Yelitza González agreed.

Volunteers with Send Relief play games with a group of children who have been participating in “pop up classrooms” after recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico prevented students from going back to their school buildings. Volunteers were able to connect with students and teachers. They also distributed emergency supplies, Bibles and information about a church in the area. Submitted by FBC Monitcello, Ky.

“Playing with the children allowed them to relax during such a tense time when everyone is nervous,” said González, a single mother of four who volunteers at the school. “If this temporary school wasn’t here, I don’t know what I’d do.

“I know that I wouldn’t be able to continue my college studies because I don’t want to be far away from the children if we do have more tremors. But here in the park, I know they’re in good hands, having a good time, all while learning something. It’s like therapy for them.”

Germán Figueroa is one of the fifth graders at the school in the park. When he saw a photo of the blue-T-shirt-clad Send Relief volunteers who helped earlier last month, his face lit up.

“They’re my friends,” he said. “The first one that I met was Scott.”

Figueroa and Scott Upchurch became friends while playing VBS-style games that the group from First Baptist Church (FBC) in Monticello, Ky., and Church at the Cross in Grapevine, Texas, organized during the three days they were at the park.

Volunteers with Send Relief play games with a group of children who have been participating in “pop up classrooms” after recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico prevented students from going back to their school buildings. Volunteers were able to connect with students and teachers. They also distributed emergency supplies, Bibles and information about a church in the area. Submitted by FBC Monitcello, Ky.

Send Relief volunteers also brought duffel bags full of emergency materials and school supplies. The school supplies were used at the school in the park while the emergency materials, New Testaments and information from a local SBC church, Iglesia Bautista Misionera, were distributed at a nearby neighborhood.

The volunteers prayer-walked the area surrounding the church, gave out emergency supplies and prayed with many of the neighbors.

Deby Coffey, a Send Relief volunteer from FBC Monticello reflected on the impact her church’s mission team had in Puerto Rico and how God’s hand was evident, even in the purchasing of airline tickets.

“When the team leader booked our flight, for some reason we had three checked bags per ticket,” Coffey said. “At the time he booked the flight, there was no need for us to have the extra bags. He even tried to decrease the number of checked bags, but the price per ticket increased. Little did we know that God had a plan for us.”

Coffey’s team had arranged to go to the island before the earthquakes hit. In the aftermath of the tragedy, there was a need for supplies, and the extra space for checked bags meant they would be able to bring those resources with them.

Within a week, her church and others in the Monticello community donated enough to fill all of their extra duffel bags with supplies that could be divided up into backpacks donated to Send Relief.

Send Relief volunteers from First Baptist Church in Monticello, Ky., had arranged their mission trip to Puerto Rico before the earthquakes hit. A glitch occurred when booking flights, adding three carry-on luggage items to each ticket. Once the earthquake hit, they saw that glitch as an opportunity to bring duffle bags of supplies to distribute to people in need. They divided the resources into Send Relief backpacks and prayed before venturing out. Submitted by FBC Monitcello, Ky.

“We didn’t know that Send Relief had boxes of empty backpacks sent by another group which could be used to distribute the supplies to earthquake victims,” she said. “God brought it all together!”

Whether recovering from Hurricane María or the recent earthquakes, our neighbors in Puerto Rico continue to need our help.

Consider registering for an upcoming mission trip to the island. Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, you do not need a passport to travel there. More than 20 mission trips are available from now through December. Four are full, so it’s best to begin thinking about your trip now.

You can also make a contribution to the Puerto Rico Ministry Center to help support work on the island.

Jennifer Govea is a freelance writer from Atlanta.