By Brooke Schmelder
American Red Cross
In the wake of devastating hurricanes, Puerto Ricans looked to numerous American Red Cross volunteers in their greatest time of need. Among those showing up was Ben Desa from the Southern Missouri Chapter in Springfield.
When Red Cross volunteers left each area where they had been helping, the residents’ question – “Are you coming tomorrow?” — weighed on their thoughts. Volunteers did not know if they would return to the same location the next day.
Originally from Puerto Rico, Ben knew he had to volunteer as soon as disaster struck, demolishing the island he once called home. People he knew and loved were suffering and needed help.
Although not yet a volunteer, Ben quickly contacted the Red Cross, asking to be sent to support the hurricane victims. His first-hand knowledge of his homeland was a major plus for his deployment.
After completing his volunteer training, Ben made his way to Puerto Rico in late October, where he remained for 64 days working in mass care distributing water, food, cleanup supplies and other items to help people in their recovery.
Normally, such a deployment was about 21 days, so the extended time Ben spent there was a sign of his commitment.
The island Ben knew had completely changed. The flourishing tropical environment was robbed of its beauty. Buildings had been destroyed; bark and leaves from trees had been ripped clean off.
Traveling in the aftermath proved to be difficult. The island had an extreme gasoline shortage, making public transportation inaccessible. When gas was available, emergency services such as hospitals had top priority. When on the move, volunteers were escorted everywhere by the police.
The desperation was evident. Those impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria flocked to distribution sites where volunteers offered them much needed necessities.
Ben recalled that despite the conditions they were in, the hurricane survivors remained humble and kind, being grateful for the aid the volunteers provided and the items they could receive.
Religious organizations came together to help. Cell phone companies worked together to help the community. It was unique for Ben and the volunteers to experience this unity formed in the wake of a disaster.
Ben and his fellow Red Cross volunteers in Puerto Rico were quartered in a church basement for the duration of their time. They experienced sickness, hardships, and moldy environments, but despite that, true friendships were formed and they became like a close knit family.
Since the hurricanes struck Puerto Rico, the Red Cross served more than 11.3 million meals and snacks, distributed 5 million relief supplies and provided nearly 40,000 mental health and health services to people in need. More than 1,600 trained disaster workers have supported relief efforts in Puerto Rico, many deploying multiple times.
The Red Cross volunteers worked alongside volunteers from all over the world to best serve the Puerto Rican community. Ben and his crew traveled all over the island, even making their way up through the clouds in the mountains to assist bed-ridden victims. The daily relocation of volunteers allowed them to reach more community members.
When reflecting on his experience returning to the island, Ben mentioned that the mentality of the entire island has changed. Puerto Ricans have accepted what happened and look to move forward, but the laid-back approach to their lifestyle has shifted through a change in priorities. Alongside volunteers, the community must work together to rebuild what was destroyed.
Perhaps the hardest part for Ben was leaving, after spending so much time helping those in need. Recalling his experience, he said, “You want to stay till the end.”
Ben plans to continue volunteering with the Red Cross. He enjoys working with people, getting a feel for the culture, and making an impact on a community. He wishes he could have gotten involved sooner, but he will jump on future opportunities. Selecting the Red Cross as his method of volunteering was an easy choice and he recommends it to anyone who wants to make a difference.
If you would like to become a Red Cross volunteer, go to redcross.org.