From San Juan to San Juan: Halos and Hearts in Puerto Rico, Part II
With the coqui frogs still singing, Ned Smith, Kirk Mosley, Ted, and I, left the house in Bayamón, Puerto Rico at 6:30 Tuesday morning and followed Ron Batt in his battered blue van to Maunabo and our first project.
Ron founded the Halos and Hearts Organization to help reroof homes devastated by hurricanes or other natural disasters.
Pulling off the narrow street, we parked below Maritza Amaro’s home which was perched on the side of a mountain and surrounded by lush vegetation.
Maritza’s husband died after Hurricane Maria, and she and her son had been living in a rental for three years.
Until a group of volunteers had framed the roof over her tiny home, the interior had been exposed to the weather, so the paint was cracked and moldy.
While the men climbed on the roof to start installing tin sheets, Ron suggested I remove trash – a project I undertook with zeal –anything so I could keep my feet on solid ground.
Debris from the hurricane filled the yard. Downed branches, thick cables, rotting fruit from a citricos tree, bottles, cans, shoes, curlers, a telescope, battered TVs, computer monitors, and a large purse totally filled with mud.
I began by consolidating the piles. Before long, the temperature climbed to 85 degrees Fahrenheit with 85 percent humidity. Sweat soaked our hair, caps, and shirts, but with the men joking and laughing, time sped by.
At lunch, Maritza and Milagros, the community leader, struggled up the steep driveway carrying a folding table and pans of plantain, fried chicken, and salad.
As I hurried to help, I met Maritza for the first time. Her graying hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wore a polka dot blouse over a denim skirt.
Her beautiful skin hearkened back to Spanish, African, and Taino ancestry. Although her eyes still looked sad, she seemed pleased with the progress.
Milagros, whose name translates as Miracles, wore work clothes: A turban to protect her hair, a sleeveless blouse, and worn jeans.
She’d served her community for 20 years but had been defeated in November’s election. Curious about her work, I asked questions using my phone translator. “Did you earn a salary?” I typed.
“No.” She held up her phone to show me her answer. “I just love to help.”
In fact, she said, she often helped with the rebuilding process and planned to stay involved despite her defeat.
Later, she told me her own home was still “under construction,” and her grown daughter slept on a child’s inflated swimming pool.
After lunch, the ladies hauled the food down to their car, the men climbed back on the roof, and I wrestled with debris the rest of the day.
The next morning, I lugged trash down Maritza’s driveway to the street where the city would pick it up. As I walked up and down the lane, I fell in love with the countryside.
Roosters crowed and pecked gigantic snails and grubs out of the trash piles. Dogs barked; cars drove by, holding down their horns as they sped up the steep, windy road; and radios blared salsa music.
That afternoon, I helped haul the tin sheets up to the house and swept them off so they could be cut.
After I returned to the trash detail, a man hollered, “Hola, hola,” at the men on the roof, but they couldn’t hear him, so I went around to see what he needed.
He thrust a bag of fish into my hands and said, “I been fishing.”
“Gracias,” I said, deeply touched by his kindness, but since there was no refrigeration, I wasn’t sure what to do with the fish.
After he left, I took them to Ron’s van which was so hot I could’ve baked a loaf of bread inside and squeezed them into his small cooler where they made themselves distinctively known by the end of the day.
On the third day, workers hauled cement bags up to Maritza’s house in a wheelbarrow. After they unloaded and started stuccoing, we commandeered that lovely invention.
With Ned manning it, we removed most of the trash from the front yard which seemed like a minor miracle.
By then, the others had finished the roof, and they helped me climb onto it for a photo shoot. Then we followed Ron’s blue van, held together with construction screws, to our next project.
Repairing Edwardo’s house took the rest of our time on the island. Hurricane Maria had blown the small frame building off its foundation, but he’d rebuilt the front portion.
After he was diagnosed with cancer, however, the work stalled, so our group built the remaining walls and framed the roof.
His yard was impressively clean, and since I really wanted to help, I finally mounted a ladder to install hurricane clips which anchored the walls to the roof beams.
Oddly, even though I climbed up five or six rungs and balanced there as I drilled in the screws (or dropped them), I didn’t freeze like I usually do.
Perhaps miracles happen when you put your attention on others instead of yourself.
Our grandson-in-law, who served as a missionary in the Dominican Republic, told us, “I had to learn a foreign language, eat strange food, and take bucket showers. I should’ve been miserable, but I wasn’t.
“In fact, that’s the richest happiness I’ve ever known.”
Two days later, as we boarded our planes to fly home, we knew exactly what he meant.