As the 2018 hurricane season is winding down, we are thinking of those in the Carolinas, Florida and Virginia who have been affected most severely by Hurricanes Florence and Michael and continue to work to rebuild. We know, however, that when natural disasters strike, thoughts and prayers are not enough.
The 2017 hurricane season hit the Caribbean particularly hard. Its islands were still picking up the pieces from one storm as another thundered in from the Atlantic. Hurricanes Irma and Maria had particularly devastating effects on Puerto Rico, where 58% of children were living in poverty even before the hurricanes hit. It is estimated that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.1 Power was out in many areas for months.
As the people of Puerto Rico engage in the difficult and expensive work of rebuilding, the National Recreation Foundation (NRF) is focused on the needs of the organizations and programs providing recreation opportunities for Puerto Rico’s youth, especially as they work to cope with the traumatic experiences endured. At its Annual Meeting in November 2017, NRF’s Board of Trustees made a commitment to support the youth of Puerto Rico.
NRF invited several organizations to submit proposals for special projects focused on Puerto Rican youth. NRF executive director, Sophie Twichell, and NRF trustee, General Alfred Valenzuela, visited the island in May 2018 to meet with applicant organizations and to conduct site visits. The quote below from General Valenzuela, outlines his experience in Puerto Rico, as he and Twichell assessed damage and need:
NRF gave me an honor by allowing me a first-hand visit to Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria. My mission was to evaluate the needs on the ground and the solutions proposed by applicant organizations, and how this dovetailed with NRF’s desire to ensure Puerto Rican youth have access to safe spaces and programs to play, learn and recreate. Based on that scenario, I offer the following:
I was absolutely taken aback and shocked by the damage we witnessed on the ground. The recreational assets serving Puerto Rican youth (clubs, courts, fields) sustained significant damage. In addition to the physical damage to buildings, the organizations we visited had lost large numbers of staff who had fled the island. It was clear to me that the closed schools, damaged recreation facilities and loss of after-school programs could further traumatize these children unless we provided immediate assistance.
Through our tour of the affected areas, it was evident that support from NRF would have a significant positive impact on the island’s youth, especially if we could respond quickly. Upon our return, we shared the story of what we saw with NRF’s Board of Trustees.
I serve on the NRF Board of Trustees because I am committed to nurturing our nation’s young people. The dire situation I witnessed in Puerto Rico convinced me that I, and NRF, needed to step in right away if we were to live up to our reputation and our goal of giving where it is needed most. My heart was broken by what I saw, but the impressive organizations working on the ground helped me imagine smiles returning. I truly believe that we were living John 15:13, where he said that there is “No Greater Love” than one who helps another.
Support from NRF is providing critical resources for desperately needed after-school and weekend recreation programs for low-income Puerto Rican children, with a focus on health, well-being, education and exercise. I am grateful to be part of a foundation that is responsive to real need and committed to action on behalf of our children.
General Alfred A. Valenzuela
Two organizations were identified by NRF as strong candidates for support: the Boys & Girls Club of Puerto Rico (BGCPR) and Para La Naturaleza (PLN). BGCPR is a member club of Boys & Girls Clubs of America and provides critically-needed after-school programming for island youth. PLN encourages the stewardship and conservation of natural and human ecosystems by protecting areas revered for both their natural beauty and cultural significance.
Both organizations designed recreation programs specifically focused on addressing the serious needs of Puerto Rican youth post-hurricane. In partnership with BGCPR, NRF is supporting an enhanced Triple Play program, which celebrates mind, body and spirit. In addition to an emphasis on physical activity, healthy lifestyles and character advancement, a mindfulness component was incorporated, thereby providing youth with skills to address trauma experienced during Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.
PLN is piloting an after-school immersion in nature program to build environmental awareness in over 200 students by engaging them with nature at area preserves. The purpose of the program is to offer these students the opportunity to play, discover and explore the outdoors, create and nurture a long-standing connection with nature, raise awareness about the protection and conservation of the environment, develop leadership skills and increase their confidence and resilience to overcome the cycle of poverty.
With encouragement from NRF, these two organizations also submitted an application for a new collaborative program to provide BGCPR youth with weekend outings into natural areas to develop understanding and appreciation of natural habitats, healthy living and interdependence with nature. Participating youth are learning about the environmental causes and implications of hurricanes, coupled with excursions to investigate the island’s diverse ecosystems. These students will be part of the rebuilding process by engaging in citizen science, as well as participating in a reforestation campaign. Students are planting trees, a critical activity for combating erosion, improving water quality and enhancing wildlife habitat. They are actively engaged in healing the island they call home, as well as increasing its resiliency to future hurricanes.
In total, NRF provided $455,000 in funding for these three programs.
The many recent natural disasters across the U.S. have demonstrated that the generosity of individuals, organizations and foundations is vital to recovery. We are proud that NRF is able to provide support for Puerto Rico’s young people during this period of hardship.