As I flew over the island of Puerto Rico in early May of this year, I was immediately astounded by its beauty. With my face pressed to the glass of the window, I drank in the vibrancy that stared back at me. It seemed like the colors in Puerto Rico had to be brighter than any I had seen at home. The island had the deepest forest greens and beautiful glistening glass buildings. I could see the bright yellow sand of its famous beaches and the deep turquoise water that faded into a dark cerulean. However, what caught my eye as I flew over the island were the spots of bright blue from the tarps that served as the only roofing protecting many houses. This site was my first true run-in with the impact of Hurricane Maria.
In September of 2017, the beautiful island of Puerto Rico was devastated by the worst storm it had experienced in nearly 80 years. Directly after the storm, 100% of the island experienced power outages and it left tens of thousands of people with destroyed houses. Now, in the aftermath of the storm, the entire island still suffers from power outages, food shortages, displacement, and damages to their homes and buildings. Though the island has made enormous progress in recovery, when our group landed on May 11th, we knew there was still more to do and we were ready to help.
Through our host organization, our ragtag group of Levines was tasked with the seemingly impossible job of cleaning up an abandoned school. The multi-building school was abandoned three years prior and, now, our host organization plans to turn it into a boarding school for foster children on the island. When we arrived on the scene, the entire campus was covered with broken furniture, scattered papers, broken branches, overgrown vines, and (much to my dismay) many, many spiders. But, I have never seen a group of Levines back away from a challenge. So, with machetes, hatchets, and shovels in hand, we hit the ground running immediately. Over the next week, we blasted our “old school jams” playlists and dove in with the enthusiasm and determination I have seen represented in our program many times before. On the very last day of our work there, we drove away with every building cleaned, swept, and de-spidered; every path cleared of its layer of vines and bamboo; and every person swelling with a sense of accomplishment. As our vans pulled away that day, we could finally see the vision for the school’s potential.
Levine service trips are unique because balance our goal (serving others) while also giving us the chance to explore and immerse ourselves in the culture around us. In between our days of sweat and effort, we were able to travel around to the most beautiful spots in Puerto Rico. The very first day we landed, we were able to go on a hike through the El Yunque National Forest. We explored the beaches of Puerto Rico and were able to walk through the picturesque city of Old San Juan. Through each of these experiences, I was enthralled by the sheer beauty of the island. More than the vibrant landscape, I was amazed by the beauty of the culture and its people. From hearing about the lives of the couple who worked at the school with us, to devouring the homecooked Puerto Rican food lovingly prepared every night, to sitting on the wall of El Morro and staring over the crystal blue water before me—each time I experienced the unique heritage that defines the island, I was blown away.
Going into the trip, I had many expectations. I expected to see a defeated island torn apart by a vicious hurricane. However, Puerto Rico defied all my expectations repeatedly. From the day that I landed to the day my plane departed, Puerto Rico and its people astounded me with their beauty, strength, and rich heritage. This year’s May trip will always be one of the best experiences I have ever had.