By Tracy Hanes

Puerto Rico humanitarian missions have left an imprint on locals and volunteers alike

It’s been a rough few years for 73-year-old Raul Negron, a farmworker who lives in the remote mountain village of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. After his ex-wife suffered mental health issues, his son and daughter were put in foster care. Just after Negron won custody of Carlos, 15, and Pendind, 14, Hurricane Maria hit the island on October 6, 2017.

The bridge in San Lorenzo was decimated and villagers had to ford a fast-moving river to obtain food and water. They lived without electricity for almost a year. The hurricane caused an estimated $139 billion in damages—including $33 billion in housing—across Puerto Rico.

Fourteen months later, Raul and his children were living in his still badly damaged concrete house. Negron’s income from harvesting cacao wasn’t sufficient to fund home repairs. The house had a leaky, makeshift roof, no bathroom, stove or fridge, and the family slept on water-logged, mould-infested beds.

In December, 12 Canadian volunteers of Hope Agua Vida, a humanitarian home-rebuilding mission founded by Doug Tarry of Doug Tarry Homes, Scott Davis of Winmar Property Restoration Specialists, and Tarry Homes customer Juan Pablo Hernandez, found Raul and his children living in his ramshackle shelter and got to work to improve the family’s situation as part of a larger challenge, rebuilding Puerto Rico.

“It was a total gut job. We built them a new roof that works and will withstand a Category 4 hurricane,” says Tarry. The house is now safe, dry and the family has a new stove, beds and bathroom fixtures. As the Canadians and Negrons were celebrating completion of the five-day rebuild, the heavens opened and everyone had to run inside.

“It was symbolic, as we all had to take shelter under the roof,” says Tarry. “It’s tiring, it’s hard work, you work pretty hard in the heat, but it’s so incredibly rewarding.”

Initially, Negron was reluctant to have the Canadians help, as a lot of opportunistic contractors have been out just for money and there is a lack of controls in rebuilding Puerto Rico.

“By the second day, the tears were flowing, because they didn’t believe people from Canada could do such an amazing job in just a few days,” says Hernandez, who serves as Hope Agua Vita’s translator and project coordinator. “Raul’s blood pressure was high and it was such an intense, emotional experience for him that we had to look out for him numerous times. He said, ‘I’ve never received anything like you’ve given me.”

Hope Agua Vita’s first visit to Puerto Rico was in November 2017 with 12 volunteers. The group was stunned by the extent of the damage and the conditions people were living in. It was followed by a mission with 12 volunteers in January 2018, then another with 25 in May that included tradespeople, three engineers, a Fanshaw College professor for the Women and Carpentry program, as well as a University of Western Ontario graduate student studying wood-frame roofing in hurricane zones.

Island homes have three basic types of construction: concrete houses with concrete roofs; concrete houses with wood roofs; and wood houses with wood roofs. The homes are poorly built so are not resistant to hurricane-force winds and flooding.

“We’ve done one house, five wood roofs and five concrete roofs. That’s not bad for a little start-up initiative,” says Tarry.

At first, the arrival of such a humanitarian mission can be a bit traumatizing for the local community, Tarry explains. “You have these big Canadians coming in and pounding away for five or six days on a house. As much as they know you are coming, they don’t realize the upheaval that happens, as we have to have a clean working environment. But by the second or third day, they realize what we are doing and are amazed by the building science and technology.”

On a previous mission, Hope Agua Vita rebuilt a home for a villager named Nancy, who had helped facilitate the Canadians’ efforts in San Lorenzo.

“Nancy never asked for anything and on the third mission we went to her house and realized it was no place for her or her family to live, and so we rebuilt it from scratch,” says Hernandez. “It was hard to stop her crying from the joy that brought. Nancy is our ambassador to many organizations; she’s much more engaged in the community and wants to help.”

Nancy proudly flies the Canadian flag at her house and told the Hope Agua Vita volunteers, “Thank you very much, Canada. You taught us the meaning of hope.” During the December 2018 mission, she hosted lunch for the Canadian crew every day at her house.

“Ruben and Lourdes, who we helped before, were on site every day, even though Ruben is going blind and Lourdes is recovering from cancer treatment,” relates Tarry. “It’s really nice to see these folks giving back. Some of the younger people who were on the periphery last mission got more involved. That was really awesome.”

Raul Negron is engaged with the community, very sports-oriented and works with kids who want to play baseball. Tarry says that initially Raul’s children were shy and hung back when the Hope Agua Vita team arrived, but by the second day of working on their house, his son Carlos was on the roof carrying wood and asking to help, and Pendind became more engaged with the group. On the final day, the crew gave Carlos a pair of safety glasses.

“Carlos was very emotional, as he got our 100% commitment to help him accomplish his dreams (to be a professional baseball player),” says Hernandez. “There is no longer the excuse he can’t achieve his dream because he doesn’t have a proper house to live in. He will be scouted by ball teams this year and he wants to move to a Triple-A team.”

Hope Agua Vita has also served to empower women in the village to help in rebuilding Puerto Rico. The Canadians have shown village mothers and grandmothers how to repair concrete roofs, bought them tools and materials and are mentoring them to form their own company. Stefanie Coleman, owner of London-area renovation company Pretty Smart Homes, was on Hope Agua Vita’s May 2018 mission and says the highlight for her was teaching five island women how to use a tape measure.

“Two had broken English and the rest had none, but they understood numbers and I was able to explain it that way, and within 45 minutes, they all got it,” says Coleman. “Something that we take for granted gives these women a basic skill to be able to move forward to work on their own.”

Coleman also helped to train the women how to seal concrete roofs and to install flashing around windows to protect from water penetration. “Stefanie and Jennifer Sanders (of Graystone Custom Homes and a Fanshawe College professor in the school of building technology)—oh my goodness, they are amazing,” says Hernandez. “They were cutting wood and using tools and swinging hammers like everyone else.”

Tarry says Sarah Stevenson, the group’s PhD engineering student, has been another asset. “This was the second mission for Sarah and we got to see her evolution as an engineer. She was thinking, ‘How do I simplify explanations for these people to understand?’”

Engineer Greg Hussey from Newfoundland, has also been on two missions, says Tarry. “It’s been a rewarding experience to see him working with a younger team.”

Until now, Hope Agua Vita has done its own fundraising to finance its rebuilding Puerto Rico endeavours, but Tarry says the goal is now to partner with an aid organization, such as FEMA or the Red Cross, or to set up its own non-profit entity. One idea is to create eco-tourism or volunteer vacations where people could work with Hope Agua Vita for four or five days, then enjoy the rest of the island.

Hernandez, a former video producer who now works in business development for Graphenstone eco-friendly paints, immigrated to Canada from Colombia 10 years ago and says his involvement with Hope Agua Vita has been life-changing, not only for the Puerto Rican people the mission has assisted, but for him as well. “I love that Canadians stand up for Canadians and others,” Hernandez says. “If you give back, it will fill your heart and show you are not alone in this world. I learned that in Canada.”

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Ontario Home Builders' Association Magazine article on rebuilding homes in Puerto Rico