Little did Julie and Jon Meyers know when they had planned months ago their winter getaway to Puerto Rico’s La Isla Verde resort, the area would be in the midst of recovering from Hurricane Maria, the most devastating natural disaster ever to hit the region.
Even though all 3.4 million residents lost power after the late-September hurricane and approximately 40 percent of the island remains without power months later, once the Meyers family determined that the hotel was dry, they decided to go ahead with their trip. In addition to having fun in the sun to celebrate their 15th anniversary and the 61st anniversary of Jon’s parents, Karin and Burt Meyers, the Dec. 19-27 visit was transformed into something of a humanitarian mission.
“The idea that we could really help, that we could do something meaningful, not just sit on the beach — it was really powerful to me that it could be a different type of vacation,” she told NJJN over FaceTime. Julie is executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Mercer.
They did not arrive at this decision without some trepidation. Jon said he was “worried about what it would look like.” Their older daughter, Dylan, a fifth grader at the Princeton Junior School, said, “I was scared to see the damage.” The family’s youngest daughter, Aliya, is in third grade at Eldridge Park Elementary School in Lawrence Township.
Although its electricity had been restored and the only damage they noticed at their hotel was to some concrete steps, they saw some effects of the hurricane immediately upon leaving the airport. “You could see people working on stuff, building stuff, repainting buildings,” Julie said.
On a drive along the coast outside of San Juan, Jon said he saw “little buildings that were totally destroyed, collapsed from the wind.”
He added, “I imagine I didn’t get a true sense” of the scope of the disaster. (But he noted that he was impressed with how well Puerto Ricans handled major intersections without working traffic lights.)
“Seeing people suffering was upsetting to me,” said Dylan. “It was hurtful to see those people. It gave you a feeling that I have to do more for the people.”
One of the first challenges they faced — in fact, before they even left — was finding out how they could help the residents. Jon, who works for New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, said that the Puerto Rico tourist bureau “had no resources for telling people what they needed help with.”
The damage was just that extensive.
“It was hard to know where to begin,” Julie said. “It’s not that charities didn’t want help; they are desperate for help and don’t know what foot to put forward first.”
Dylan Meyers on a unicycle before the holiday parade in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Julie Meyers
Julie, whose family is members of Little Shul by the River in New Hope, Pa., sought Jewish communal resources in Puerto Rico.
She visited the website for Chabad Jewish Center of Puerto Rico, located in San Juan, which had published a list of items they hoped to donate to victims across the island. Using the list as a guide, the Meyers collected several items —diapers, sanitary products, nonperishable foods, flashlights, batteries, solar lanterns, and other supplies — and crammed as much as they could into their luggage.
They gave some items to the Chabad rabbi, Mendel Zarchi, a 20-year resident of the island, who “has been helping the Jewish community and others throughout the island by distributing supplies from other organizations,” said Jon. “He had piles and piles of canned goods.”
Julie’s other idea was to contact Social Circus of Puerto Rico Educare, a sister chapter of the Trenton Circus Squad, which provides free circus training to Trenton youth and enables participates to serve their community through teaching and performing.
Dylan and Aliya have participated in the Trenton workshops. “My favorite thing is I like to unicycle or I like the aerials,” Dylan said.
The Meyers communicated with the Puerto Rico Social Circus via email and text, and met the staff for lunch to donate some supplies. In turn, Dylan and Aliya were invited to join their chapter in the annual holiday parade to raise money for the San Jorge Children’s Hospital in San Juan, and they even managed to scrape up half a costume for Dylan.
“It was fun, but it was very disorganized…I unicycled, and Aliya was in the parade,” Dylan said. In an email, Julie added that this was “a huge deal in so many aspects — as it was the first major ‘joyous’ thing that took place since the storm.”
The absence of electricity was conspicuous for the family. Three-quarters of the hotel wait staff didn’t have power at home. Neither did one of the Social Circus organizers who had a 3-month-old baby.
Dylan Meyers, at left, and Aliya Meyers, bottom right, in a parade benefitting the San Jorge Children’s Hospital in San Juan. Photo by Julie Meyers
In addition to the 100-family Chabad synagogue — its brand-new building incurred only minor damage — the island has a Conservative and a Reform synagogue, all in the San Juan area. Jon said that few Jews belonged to “the very old Jewish families” who had been in Puerto Rico for hundreds of years. “Most have come from the mainland.” The Meyers reached out to all three of the synagogues, but only heard back from Chabad, though that probably was related to the situation on the ground.
“If you don’t have electricity, you can’t get email, and you can’t put together an infrastructure,” Julie said. For many people, their only functioning technology was their cell phones, which they charged in their cars.
Despite the challenges on the island, it was well prepared in one way: The Meyers managed to find food for Aliya, who has Celiac disease. “Lo and behold there was a [supermarket] 1.2 miles from the hotel, and just like ShopRite, it was well stocked with gluten-free products,” Jon said.
For those wondering what they can do to help the people of Puerto Rico, Julie has a suggestion: Go. Residents rely on a robust tourism industry to stay employed.
She said that fear of visiting storm-damaged Puerto Rico can cost people their jobs.
“You can go lie on the beautiful beaches, and if you are tipping barmaids or people cleaning your room, you’re giving people jobs.”