Almost a year has passed since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc upon the island territory of Puerto Rico. The storm knocked out power to the entire island, and restoration has been slow. Thousands went without power or water services for months.
Dana Kaleta knew about the problems there, but she also had a more personal connection.Alberto Maldonado and Lynnette Rivera, both friends and colleagues at UWM, are natives of Puerto Rico with family that still live there. Kaleta wanted to assist her colleagues and their friends. So she did, organizing two aid trips already, with another planned for fall.
Maldonado, the interim director of the Roberto Hernández Center, shared with Kaleta pictures and video posted by family in Puerto Rico. She was shocked by how much help was still needed.
“The devastation was overwhelming,” said Kaleta, director of the Quest Project within the TRIO & Pre-College Programs at UWM.
First trip provides 120 water filters
She acted quickly, organizing a fundraiser and a trip with four volunteers from the La Causa Charter School in Milwaukee to assist teachers and schools in Puerto Rico. The fundraiser, Operation Agua, was organized through the American Federation of Teachers.
With over $3,000 raised, Kaleta and the volunteers purchased 120 water filters, each one of which can provide clean water for a family of four for up to a year.
Armed with filters and other supplies, Kaleta and the volunteers left in April to assist.
Once Kaleta and her fellow volunteers arrived in Utuado, Maldonado’s hometown, they worked with over 250 students in various schools and provided water filters to displaced families.
Kaleta bonded with many of these students and educators and wanted to provide a network between schoolchildren back in Milwaukee and the children and adults who had been affected by the storm.
“I wanted to show them that people outside of Puerto Rico still cared about them,”said Kaleta.
Organizing another trip
When she returned home, Kaleta quickly began organizing a return trip in May.
Kaleta gathered more filters and other necessities to take to schools in Puerto Rico with Jaime Ferschinger, an employee of the City of Milwaukee, and Rivera, a senior academic advisor at UWM. These necessities included snacks and other supplies, but also a personal connection to Milwaukee.
Kaleta and La Causa thought it would be beneficial to have Milwaukee pre-college students write letters to Puerto Rican students and share their thoughts and prayers with them. These students also chose new Spanish and bilingual books to be included with the letters, in hopes that they could provide a smile and momentary escape from the stresses on the island.
‘She was a part of us’
When Rivera returned to Puerto Rico and saw the work that Kaleta had accomplished, she became emotional about her friend and the humanitarian work that had been done.
“She is amazing,”said Rivera. “She was a part of us.”
Rivera spoke of a friend in her hometown who had been affected by Kaleta and her generosity.
“My friend, she had gone days without being able to provide a meal for her family.”
Quoting the friend, Rivera said, “This woman, that I do not know (Kaleta), she brought me rice, beans and meat. My kids are going to eat a good meal because of this woman.”
“This was a miracle,”said Rivera.
Kaleta plans to return back to Puerto Rico early in the fall semester to provide school uniforms and supplies to children in the affected neighborhoods. Donations to assist Kaleta and her team may be made at the project’s GoFundMe page.