Nearly 50 Long Island college students will spend part of their summer break in Puerto Rico, rebuilding the communities devastated by Hurricane Maria last September.
Maryah Desir, a Nassau Community College student studying adolescent education, is one of the 46 students from the five SUNY schools on Long Island heading there to help. She leaves next week.
"For me, as a human being, it’s my duty to respond when there’s a crisis," said Desir, 19, of Westbury, who hopes to work with families with younger children while she’s there.
She visited Puerto Rico on a cruise a few years ago, long before the Category 4 storm hit the island on Sept. 20, 2017. The hurricane displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and many of them lacked the resources to rebuild.
"When I heard what happened, I was devastated because it was literally one of the most beautiful places I've ever been in my life," she said.
Some 250 SUNY students statewide and 250 City University students were selected to participate in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s summerlong NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recover and Rebuilding Initiative. There were more than 1,500 applicants within the SUNY system.
The students and dozens of skilled labor volunteers are partnering with nonprofit organizations to clean, restore and rebuild homes, according to a news release from the governor’s office.
There are five waves of volunteers going for two-week spans, which began in June and end in August.
Francis Gomera of Copiague, who attends Farmingdale State College, was in the first group of students that went in June.
Gomera, 20, moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 8 years old, so the hurricane in Puerto Rico hit close to home.
“When I read what was going on and how many people were not being helped almost a year after the hurricane, that kind of impacted me,” said Gomera, a senior bioscience major. “You can still see houses destroyed, people still being displaced by it.”
During the two-week trip, he and his group fixed the roofs of about 30 houses, as well as some of the interiors, he said.
“I feel like my life changed a lot, because at one point I didn’t want to leave,” he said, adding that he feels like he still “should be back there helping.”
The students will work in tandem with the nonprofit rebuilding organizations All Hands and Hearts, Heart 9/11, and NECHAMA. UNICEF USA committed funding to support the effort.
Participating students receive a stipend, and can earn up to three college credits for their work.
It’s a service learning opportunity, said Pascale Jones, an international programs coordinator who is coleading the effort at Stony Brook University and will be accompanying students on the trip.
The students will be keeping a journal and have to write a reflective piece about their experience, Jones said. They also are being encouraged to share different strategies and ideas to help with the recovery efforts based on their studies, she said.
“Ideally every student would be able to bring something to the table and emerge as a leader in some capacity,” she added.
Jessica Naissant, 24, of Elmont, said she feels lucky to be one of 11 students from SUNY Old Westbury selected to go in August.
“I hope to volunteer and maybe work in a hospital and help rebuild houses,” said Naissant, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s degree in biology and plans to go to medical school.
She was in Puerto Rico last year for vacation a few months before the hurricane. To prepare physically and mentally for her trip, she's been trying to hike and exercise, Naissant said.
“It was crazy to me that I was just there and now the country was in absolute ruin,” she said. “I wanted to go back and help out.”
By the Numbers
Out of the 250 SUNY students selected, here’s a breakdown of those attending Long Island colleges:
Farmingdale State College: 4
Nassau Community College: 8
Stony Brook University: 22
Suffolk County Community College: 1
SUNY Old Westbury: 11
*Numbers provided by SUNY, and include current students and recent graduates. Numbers are still being finalized.