December 15, 2017
This past September Hurricane Maria devastated the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. In a year that has felt apocalyptic at times, it might have seemed like just one of many disasters to hit our country’s citizens. But for me, this catastrophe was personal. If you know a bit of my history, you know that Rincon, Puerto Rico has been the home to generations of the Mendez family. I spent years of my childhood running around the family farm, befriending cows and chickens, climbing our land’s bountiful grapefruit trees, and gazing at the night sky that glittered like diamonds.
In a tumultuous childhood that saw little stability, my grandparents’ cozy farmhouse in Puerto Rico was the closest thing I had to a home. It was, at times the only place I felt truly safe. After my grandparents’ passing, my parents took over the farm full-time, so over the years Rincon has continued to provide a warm and welcoming retreat.
When news of the hurricane hit, I was terrified to learn my once haven had become a disaster zone. Cell phone towers were decimated and power was out across the region, leading to a complete communications blackout. I had no way of contacting my family and confirming their safety. There were no updates on mainstream television programs, and the painfully slow trickle of information I could find online only provided vague summaries of a territory in peril. So all I knew for days was that there was no running water, no food, no power, no working toilets, no gasoline, and no end in sight.
After some time, images of annihilated homes made their way to social media. Pictures of roofs completely torn off houses, astoundingly, depicted the fortunate ones amongst the chaos. Some people watched their homes completely swept away in the winds of the worst hurricane to ever hit the island. I could only sit around and wonder how my parents’ home had fared. Perhaps the hardest question I had to ask myself was how had my parents managed? Had they even survived?
For over a week that question stopped my heart in its tracks. The question made food lose taste and sleep impossible. I wondered, even if they had survived the initial destruction, how long could they make it without food or water in punishing 90-degree temperatures? Not knowing if my parents were starving or safe made every meal, and every moment my head touched a pillow, a painfully guilty experience.
So I decided to stop sitting around, waiting for answers. My literary agent, Lisa Leshne, was kind enough to connect me to Laura Posada, an influencer and life coach who was organizing relief flights into Puerto Rico and connecting with family on the ground. I donated to her fund in hopes that the karma gods would high five me back. I was so grateful when she was able to get boots on the ground near our farm. Her team used a satellite phone to provide me with the most relieving news I’ve ever received, proof of life. I got to hear my parents’ voices and let them know that I was working my butt off to better their precarious situation.
Hardened fighters that they are, they didn’t want to leave the island. It was their home through thick and thin. Their farm was ripped apart, but their house, built by my grandfather’s own hands, was standing strong. Perhaps the most unexpected, most sobering, statement I’ve ever heard came from my father when he sighed, “I don’t want to complain. A lot of people have it worse.” I laughed. They were living in sweltering temperatures, in archaic conditions, in a territory forgotten by their own country, but he didn’t want to complain. Puerto Ricans are the toughest people in the world.
With a lot of maneuvering and patience we were able to provide food and supplies to not only my family but the surrounding town over the next couple of weeks. The situation and peril is far from over for the people of Puerto Rico, but wonderful groups like Laura’s are working hard to keep people fed, dry, safe, and healthy. Our buddies Danielle Colby and Jeremy Scheuch also made relief trips, providing water filters and first aid to the neglected western side of the island. They volunteered their own time and money to try and reach people who feared help was never coming. It is independent groups like these that have provided the most immediate, lifesaving aid in the excruciating hours and days when the federal government was unable to. FEMA has only just made it to Rincon, two months after the hurricane initially hit. If it weren’t for the passionate, selfless efforts of smaller relief groups, who knows how those farmland citizens would have coped. I am so grateful to everyone who helped me act immediately and effectively to save my family’s lives.
In return I have continued researching organizations to promote and donate to in hopes that other families can survive this harrowing ordeal. Puerto Rico is far from saved. Some cell towers are functioning again, and water availability is sporadic at best. Hospitals are desperate for life saving generators to provide power to dialysis machines and other life preserving medical equipment, communities are desperate for clean water to avoid infections and illness, and every citizen is coping without electricity. The most simple, basic of needs, are far from being met. Puerto Rico is not a foreign nation; it is a US territory currently functioning like a third world country. We must do everything we can to rectify that.
There are many amazing organizations working tirelessly to help, but I know it can be confusing trying to figure out whom to trust with your time and money. I can testify that if you are able to donate, any amount at all can make a huge difference. And every cent given to these following organizations will go toward life saving efforts. Personally, I will be donating all proceeds from my shop to relief efforts. Since the hurricane hit until the beginning of the new year, all proceeds from the autographed 8x10s on the Shop are being donated to these kickass organizations. Please join me in this fight to save lives.