JULY 2018
Jennifer Crusco
Communications Assistant

Holy Angels Takes Action to Help Puerto Rico’s Recovery

Demarest, NJ: Although the fundraisers have ended and a $7,042 Hurricane Maria relief check was sent off months ago, the Academy of the Holy Angels never put the people of Puerto Rico out of their minds. After school ended for the year, an industrious group of AHA teens and chaperones took a service trip to the island, where they demolished storm-ravaged buildings and helped restore a farm where many crops had been destroyed.

AHA Spanish teacher Carmen Quiñones coordinated the week-long service trip through the AHA Campus Ministry Department, and established ties with Developing Solidarities, a Puerto Rico-based for-profit organization. Luis Saez Nuñez, the organization’s director, recommended work sites and accompanied the group on each mission. Quiñones and AHA Social Studies Department Chair Gail Fair served as chaperones and hands-on volunteers.

“I decided to work with Developing Solidarities because they seemed to provide the most organized and varied program, provided transportation to all sites, and included excursions that highlighted the island’s unique culture and natural beauty,” Quiñones noted.

Student volunteers included Catherine Bagin of Glen Ridge, Dominique Clisura of Rutherford, Julia Farah and Rianna LeHane of Pearl River (NY), Sarah Folk of Old Tappan, Mackenzie Hughes of Oradell, Donatella Leon of Cliffside Park, Sofia Lopez of Little Ferry, Sydney Loverich of Mahwah, and Gabriela Sandoval of Washington Township. Together, they worked in locations within Aibonito and Bayamon.

“The most impactful aspect of the trip was the face-to-face contact we had with the people of Puerto Rico,” Bagin said of the experience. “We were able to meet the men and women whose houses we were knocking down, which made the whole process much more personal. It was also very touching to be thanked by random citizens on the streets.”

Bagin said her favorite memory was forged on the first work day, when she and her team were asked to demolish a building that included a barber shop with a moldy wall. The team’s removal of the damaged sections of the building would clear the path for reconstruction on the existing foundation.

“The girls and I began tearing down the moldy wall. It took us awhile to find a system that worked, so our tour guide/instructor came up to us and said, ‘If this is too hard for you, I can help.’ My four friends and I looked at each other, dripping in sweat, and smiled. We all told him that we did not need help, and that we could do it. This is my favorite memory because even though it took us awhile to find the best way of tearing down the walls, we were not about to give up or stop trying.”

For Bagin, the trip drove home the meaning of “Every little bit helps.” While she once equated help with money, Bagin said her work in Puerto Rico helped her realize that “being there in person, buying from local stores, and showing you care are all just as important.”

Fair also viewed the trip as a means of doing more than writing a check.

“I have felt the urgency for the needs of these American citizens since the first news and photos of the ravaged island emerged on the networks,” Fair said of her first trip to Puerto Rico. “I knew that I wanted to be of help in some way beyond the fundraisers AHA did all year.

“In my Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, I teach about Puerto Rico and how it became a part of the United States after the Spanish American War. In AP Government and Politics, I also teach about the U.S. federal government’s responsibility to Puerto Rico, so it was a chance to help our students understand the role of the U.S. in aid through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other federal programs. Our students had a lot of questions about the connections between Puerto Rico and the United States that I was able to answer.

“As a result of this experience, our girls have a greater understanding of the wonderful people on the island who continually expressed their gratitude for our presence. We worked as one team, brainstorming and problem solving at the various locations where we worked.”

She noted that the team finished its work each day with a “true sense of human dignity and self-worth” to which all are entitled.

Volunteer Mackenzie Hughes of Oradell said this service trip left her with a deeper appreciation for the resources and opportunities available in the continental United States.

“The small things we did while in Puerto Rico made such a big difference in the lives of those we met, and it made me realize how lucky I am to be blessed with the life I have and be thankful for the things that many in Puerto Rico would never dream of having. I also learned about the value of teamwork and a common goal. As a group, we were able to accomplish so much in our short time because we were all motivated to help. This made the work we were doing rewarding rather than a chore,” Hughes said.

A simple and delicious lunch at the farm in Aibonito, where the group weeded the land and planted new crops, was particularly memorable for Hughes. “The people who live there were so hospitable and welcomed us into their home despite the fact that we were covered in dirt,” she explained.

Although the people who work this modest farm had lost most of their crops due to the hurricane, they generously made the students a bean salad for their midday meal.

While they were at the farm, the girls spent some time bonding with a dog and her three puppies. Student volunteer Sydney Loverich has been working with an organization that finds homes for dogs that were abandoned after the hurricane, and more of her friends have now been inspired to support this cause.

One of the most poignant moments of the trip came when the team was demolishing a house that belonged to a cancer survivor. As they worked on the site, the homeowner’s sister stopped by to search for her sister’s wig, which she found.

“She was so thankful for what we had done and she began to cry when describing the difference we had made for her sister,” Hughes said.

During their time in Puerto Rico, the team spent five nights at a retreat center, Casa de Espiritualidad Sagrado Corazón, which is run by Sister Carmen Margarita.

“The facility was situated in a picturesque mountainside location,” Quiñones said. “The bedrooms were very modest and were frequented by the local frogs and lizards, but the students learned to live with them and toughed it out. Additionally, they washed their own dishes and took out the garbage from their rooms each day. They adapted with each unexpected situation and made the best of every moment. They also developed a special bond. Each night, before going to bed, they gathered to talk and unwind from the day’s events.”

Quiñones added that the facility does not receive much funding, and relies on events and retreats to bring in money needed to help local families. On their last morning, the AHA volunteers presented Sister Carmen Margarita with a $260 donation from the group.

Toward the end of their stay on the island, the Holy Angels team worked at the Manatee Conservation Center on the Bayamon campus of Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. The volunteers toured the facility and learned more about the effort to save these endangered marine animals. Afterward, they prepared a large vegetable and fruit salad, which they fed to the manatees. They also restocked the refrigerators and cleaned the kitchen before they left.

Although the AHA team has physically left the island, the connection between the Academy and Puerto Rico will continue. Holy Angels will be working with Centro Paso, an Aibonito-based organization that assists families, including those the AHA team helped, by providing food, clothing, and supplies.

The students who participated in the service trip are already planning events, including clothing and toy drives.

Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious high school serves young women from a broad spectrum of cultural and religious backgrounds. Over time, thousands of women have passed through AHA’s portals. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts, and athletics. The Academy’s current leaders continue to further the SSND mission to provide each student with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially, and physically, by offering a first-rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity, and service to others.


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