Students from across the University of Georgia gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon ready for hard work.
But rather than a study group or an academic project, the mixture of undergraduate and graduate students had a decidedly un-academic goal: Move 25,000 pounds of hurricane relief supplies one step closer to its final destination of Puerto Rico.
The afternoon of moving bottles of water and diapers also helped solidify a new bond created among the students, all of whom have family ties to Puerto Rico and felt a strong desire to help after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma in September—and yet many had never met until now.
"We were trying to figure out different ways to get the supplies to the island, and that's how we got to know each other," said Frank Ferrer-Gonzalez, a third-year doctoral student in the marine sciences program. For example, Ferrer-Gonzalez met fellow Puerto Rico native Darixa Hernandez "She works next to me and I didn't know anything about her until now."
The drive, which began in early October about a week after Hurricane Irma slammed into Puerto Rico, ended up collecting 25,000 pounds of bottled water, diapers and other relief supplies. Originally, students across campus were organizing efforts on their own, motivated to help in any way. In the College of Education, counseling psychology doctoral student Marlaine Monroig organized a support group for students, faculty and staff affected by the recent natural disasters.
With the help of fellow counseling psychology students—all members of the BIEN research team, which is based in the department of counseling and human development services and led by professor Edward Delgado-Romero—she also began collecting supplies.
Then, she realized, the effort could be even bigger.
"I was starting to get large quantities of donations, and that's when I was connected with someone who directed me to a few Puerto Rican students also collecting donations in different departments. We decided to collaborate and that's how I joined the group UGA Relief for Puerto Rico," said Monroig. The group is composed of about a dozen Puerto Rican students who didn't know each other, but had one thing in common: All were born and raised on the island.
Following the hurricane, many were immediately concerned about family on the island. While Monroig was able to talk with her mother and others, students such as Ferrer-Gonzalez, whose family is from the more rural western part of the island, still have yet to make contact. Once Monroig connected with the other students, they realized it was up to them to collect supplies and find a way to get them to Puerto Rico.
With the support of colleges and departments including the Graduate School, Multicultural Services and Programs, the Hispanic Student Association, Biological Sciences and the College of Education, students set up drop-off locations across campus.
Then, as supplies began to collect in students' living rooms and offices, they realized they then needed to find a way to store and transport the supplies.
Recently, more than two dozen students, faculty and family members gathered at a makeshift storage space on campus to move the supplies to a more official storage unit, where the volunteers then separated items into pallets and weighed them for shipping. From there, the donations will be transported to Jacksonville, Florida, and loaded onto a cargo ship headed to the one working port in Puerto Rico. The donated items will be shipped thanks to help from the organizations ISER Caribe and Presente en Florida.
"It's really hard to get things to the island right now," said Ferrer-Gonzalez. "There's just one port open and one company that can get things there. So that was the biggest concern and we managed to do that."
Ferrer-Gonzalez plans to travel to Puerto Rico in time to meet the donations at the port and help with distribution. He is also bringing a cache of water filters to be distributed to households on the island, giving families with access to a stream or river the ability to filter their own drinking water.
What began as an effort among worried family members turned into a lesson in logistics and a force for change, said Hernandez, a master's student in marine biology. "Out of this bad thing at least something positive came out," she said. "We just started emailing, and started connecting with each other, and that's how we got together."
Monroig also found a kinship among her fellow BIEN research team members, many of whom came out to move supplies to the storage area and also raised donations to help pay for other necessary expenses.
"I felt helpless after the hurricane hit my home, especially being so far away," she said, adding that creating the support group, as a counselor in training, was a natural way to marry her skills and desire to help. "Dr. Delgado-Romero and his BIEN team were key in assisting with the planning and facilitating of the support group, and they have been a source of support in general throughout these very tough weeks. To say I felt overwhelmingly blessed is an understatement."
Related links: Department of Counseling and Human Development Services