On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, eight students and two faculty from De Smet Jesuit High School arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a one-week service trip looking like "a great American gang walking in and everyone knew that we meant business," as senior Hunter Schoenig described it.
They came as the first contingent from Jesuit high schools in the U.S. — SLUH is up in January — to help in the island territory's recovery from the devastating one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, back-to-back wallops that severely damaged the island of 3.4 million people and from which it'll take years to rebuild.
Almost two and a half months later, nearly half the island is still without power, clean water is scare in some areas, and some mountain communities still haven't been reached. Bridges have been knocked out, mudslides have taken out roads and downed trees have blocked access.
So, the Spartans went to work. They accompanied their hosts from Colegio San Ignacio — a fellow Jesuit school in San Juan — in service in the community and surrounding villages. They cleaned homes, covered still-leaking roofs, cleared brush, planted trees, distributed food and tutored children in Vietnam, a community of San Juan. In doing this service, they were able to "make a dent" in hurricane recovery, as Andrew Ficken stated.
But in giving gifts of service, they also received gifts of appreciation from the people of Puerto Rico. Ficken related "how overjoyed the people were after we had put tarps over their roofs." They were called "angels" after cleaning up a house, and Schoenig shared how a 91-year-old woman gifted them pumpkin and bananas.
"We were shocked by this giving not only because Puerto Rico had been running low on bananas but the fact that even after all of the troubles that she has gone through, with no food, water and electricity, she was still willing to give what she had to a couple of school-kid strangers," he wrote in a reflection about the trip.
As their reflections note, they also drew inspiration from the Puerto Ricans rallying to help each other and strengthening their bonds
Joseph Baxendale, senior
"Staying with a family who did not have the simple luxury of electricity, I thought that there would be very little to do when we were at home. But I soon learned that they had their own ways of having fun without the need of power. I think that not having electricity actually helped me grow closer to the family that I stayed with because it forced us to talk and play card games. It was definitely a different experience than I have typically in my own home, but I still felt like I was a part of their family through the way they welcomed and accepted me."
Hunter Schoenig, senior
"This community was like no other I had seen before. ... I realized that these Puerto Ricans, although very similar to us in the way we live our lives with school, work, and other everyday routines, they seemed to all be together as one unit. They were all one big family. Since the hurricane, they have said that they have been closer than they ever have been before. They quickly realized that the people around them were the only ones that they had and realized that if they need their community to run properly then they all need to come together as one. ... It was pretty extraordinary to see a community as a whole come together and work for one another instead of just working for themselves. They never gave up on each other and they were always willing to keep moving forward no matter what obstacle was put in their way."
Adam Solomon, senior
"Something that I have noticed and continue to see is the hope and persistence of the Puerto Rican people. To me, being able to see everyone come together as a whole, not just in the cities, but in the entire territory, is something that I will never forget. The people of Puerto Rico are some of the most kind, humble, thoughtful and vigilant people I have ever met. Seeing a community that has been destroyed and left without water and power come together as they did and continue to do to rebuild their community is something that should be exemplified in our society today. ... It will be a long and tough process to bounce back from this hurricane, but the people of Puerto Rico are up for that challenge."