Norwich Residents Lend a Hand

Meghan Wilson (right) poses with her friend Noelia in Puerto Rico

Meghan Wilson (right) poses with her friend Noelia in Puerto Rico

Noelia, Yiria, Elliot, Rose and Glenda. They are the reason why I’m motivated to continue to support and reach out after Hurricane Maria landed on Puerto Rico in September. They are my colleagues and friends on the island, and they are leaders in their separate communities, supporting others and affecting positive change after the storm.

I’m taking a leave of absence this year from teaching biology at Hartford High School and am currently in Mexico to improve my Spanish in order to communicate more effectively. I’ve been working closely with Puerto Rican teachers and students for the past three years, and have led groups of Hartford and Puerto Rican students and teachers to Montreal, Hubbard Brook, Dartmouth, Hartford High School and to Ceci and Dunnz’s little sugar house here in Norwich on Ladeau Road. I’ve also been able to work closely with the teachers on the island and take a group of Hartford students to Puerto Rico. Together we visited each community where these teachers are now working.

The island is beautiful with many different ecosystems to explore. We traveled first to Carolina, a municipality on the island with a huge focus on education. During the day, we visited a science museum that reminded me of the Montshire with many different hands-on activities. In the afternoon, we attended José Aponte de la Torre School for Science, Math, Technology and Languages where the students taught us about different tree species on the island. This school meets after the normal school day finishes and is supported by the municipality. The next few days we spent in El Yunque National Research Forest where we learned how to measure tree growth and characteristics of soil. The forest was wild and beautiful, something that I had never seen before. The soil was rich and when I suggested that we take a hike, Noelia and her crew of volunteers laughed and agreed. The air was humid and the soil, while abundant with life, made it difficult to hike.

To have light! Grateful teachers, Elliot and Rose, receive their first delivery of lights. Hopefully the first of many such deliveries.

To have light! Grateful teachers, Elliot and Rose, receive their first delivery of lights. Hopefully the first of many such deliveries.

We then visited Guanica, a town in the south of the island, where the land was much more arid, and we compared different tree species and how they evolved to support life in a dry area. We visited the municipality of Florida, where we learned about recycling efforts on the island. The week was completely packed with learning experiences for myself and my students. The people on the island were warm and generous, every place that we stayed the parents of the students prepared meals for us. We even had an impromptu salsa lesson from a local family!

I can’t begin to imagine what the island looked like after Maria, however, every few days I get an update from my friends… how they are doing, and what their families and communities need. If I can support them by connecting them to people on the mainland and resources, I try to help out. Carolina, the municipality that is focused on education, was hit really hard. Eighty percent of families and schools lost everything. The school that we had visited was damaged so badly that it is not in service now, nor will it be for the foreseeable future. Yiria and other teachers that we met in Carolina are now focused on providing food for hundreds of residents daily. Florida was also hit hard and there are towns that, for the next several months, will not have electricity or water service restored because Maria destroyed roads and pipes connecting the towns.

Elliot and Rose’s daughter, Alana, teach a local family to use a water filter. For just $52, this filter can provide drinking water to 18 people for a year. Please contact Meghan if you want to support this effort.

Noelia, the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Schoolyard Education Coordinator at El Yunque, said that after the storm, she ventured out to assess the damage in her neighborhood. She observed trees toppled across the roadways, roofs ripped off houses, and some homes completely demolished. “Looking up toward El Yunque National Forest, we saw a bare landscape where just the day before a verdant tropical canopy had existed, seemingly unalterable. We were utterly shocked and saddened by Maria’s impact” Noelia said.

“Our spirits were soon lifted!” she continued, “Puerto Rico is a resilient country, with its strength rooted deep in the soil as well as the community. In a matter of hours, local groups of citizens were out clearing the roads with machetes and chainsaws, and helping neighbors sift through debris and stabilize their homes. Others passed by with warm meals and potable water. Within a week, many trees began to leaf out again, testimony to the will to live and the natural capacity for renewal. External aid from partners in the US and internationally has been amazing as well. These efforts have made heroic strides toward helping those in need through the provision of emergency relief. We are grateful for and humbled by the outpouring of solidarity and support received thus far.”

Yet Puerto Rico is just beginning what will be a long road to full recovery. A majority of the island’s 3.5 million inhabitants remain without basic water and electric utilities. For many people, access to food, clothing, medical supplies, and fuel is also compromised due to limited stocks and blocked transportation routes, particularly in rural mountain areas. Elderly and residents of low-income communities are among the most vulnerable. It is anticipated that these difficult conditions will persist for several more months, potentially exacerbating public health crises.

As a resident of Ladeau Road in Norwich, the effort to support those affected by Hurricane Maria seems very similar to the aftermath of the severe rain storm this past July. The Norwich community came together to support Vickie and Mike Seaver when they needed help. And now with Hurricane Maria, there are Norwich residents supporting ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Students learning in the field in El Yunque

Lucia Graves, a Peruvian American who grew up in Norwich, works closely with the Upper Valley Buena Gente Social Club to provide a welcoming atmosphere for native and non-native Spanish speakers in the Upper Valley. Lucia says, “Buena Gente in Spanish means Good People. I know that my birth country of Peru and many other countries suffer economically after natural disasters but even in Perú basic needs are met after such devastating times. In Puerto Rico, there are sections still without governmental aid and old laws are thwarting help from getting in. That’s where we as community members step in. I’m happy to have helped create The Upper Valley Solidarity Network for Puerto Rico to not only help Puerto Rico, but also to raise awareness of our group, the Upper Valley Buena Gente Social Club. We are showing this community and the world that there are Latinos and non-Latinos that don’t have to identify as Puerto Rican to be good samaritans and lend what they can to help. Yes, my nationality is very important to me but this affects me as an American Latino and in any way I can help through the outlets of this community I will.”

A group of volunteers from the Buena Gente Social Club (BGSC), colleagues from Dartmouth College and staff from DHMC have formed “The Upper Valley Solidarity Network for Puerto Rico.”

The Network’s inaugural fundraiser took place in October and raised more than $12,000. All proceeds have been delivered directly to Iniciativa Comunitaria, a trusted community based organization working with vulnerable populations in and around San Juan.

Students working together to disperse water

Students working together to disperse water

Norwich resident, Jennifer Roby, helps to coordinate the BGSC and assists with outreach across the Upper Valley. “The opportunity to work with local partners in the Network has strengthened our community’s bonds of friendship. It is so gratifying to see people making connections and developing plans to work together in support of Puerto Rico. Outreach to our broad-based membership has helped connect people here at home and on the island.”

Noelia’s husband, Chris, explains characteristics of soil

Noelia’s husband, Chris, explains characteristics of soil

A few years ago my extended family started a new tradition. During the holidays when we get together to celebrate, we no longer purchase gifts for each other. Instead, we rotate through the family and choose one organization that we support monetarily or with resources.

This tradition is rich because it brings together support and we get to learn more about what each of us values. This year my family is supporting ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

The world seems overwhelming at times, but there are so many ways to lend a hand. If you want to support the communities on the island with supplies and resources, please contact me directly at for more information, or contact the Upper Valley Solidarity Network for Puerto Rico at BGSC:

Thank you and have a happy holiday season.

Meghan Wilson