John Jay College’s SEEK and COSL Students Rebuild Homes in Puerto Rico

John Jay College’s SEEK and COSL Students Rebuild Homes in Puerto Rico

John Jay College’s SEEK and COSL Students Rebuild Homes in Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, it left devastation in its wake. The island was in the literal dark for months on end, and to this day its inhabitants are still trying to recover and rebuild. Lending a helping hand in rebuilding efforts, students from John Jay College’s Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) program and Community Outreach and Service Learning (COSL) Disaster Relief Team, went to Puerto Rico earlier this year. The two groups joined forces to restore damaged homes, and in many ways, provide a sense of normalcy to those that they helped. To learn more about the experience, we spoke to two students—one from SEEK and one from COSL—that found themselves taking the lead during the project. They learned more about themselves, more about teamwork, and more about the power of joining forces for those in need.  

Jaritza Caba
Jaritza helps rebuild the wall for a home damaged by Hurricane Maria

Jaritza Caba ’20
Major: Forensic Psychology

Tell us a bit about your SEEK program experience. What has the program done for you?
Being a part of the SEEK program is one of the biggest blessings in my life. Knowing that a few years ago the efforts of social activists and progressive politicians whose vision was to provide students from underrepresented communities with access to go to college regardless of their obstacles, is something I am eternally grateful for. In 2018 I became a SEEK Peer Mentor and this lets me work closely with staff and students.

What inspired you to take part in the Puerto Rico service trip?
I wanted to give more, not only to the SEEK program but to the world as a whole. From a very young age I’ve always had a passion and drive to help others. When I heard about the service trip to Puerto Rico I was eager to go. I wanted the chance to use my leadership and masonry skills that I learned through my experience with East New York Farms, a community service organization in Brooklyn, to produce good work.

“Both groups rose up to the occasion and supported each other through the heat and pouring rain, and never once did they complain.” —Jartiza Caba ’20

Can you tell us about the hands-on work that you did in Puerto Rico?
I mostly worked on helping rebuild the home of a woman by the name of Sandra. She lived in a mountainous region of the island with her husband and two autistic kids. During the hurricane, a big tree fell and destroyed their bathroom wall, leaving them exposed to the outside elements. Imagine showering with no walls around you? They spent a year like this. It was our goal, as a team, to build them walls for their bathroom. We did everything from creating the cement mixture, to cutting cinder blocks, to placing the blocks. Everyone was given a task, from weeding, cleaning, mixing cement, to gathering materials. Our energy was completely invested on doing a good job for Sandra and her family.

The team works to remove the damaged pieces of the wall
The team works to remove the damaged pieces of the wall

What were some of the most challenging aspects of the trip? And, what were some of the most rewarding moments?
The weather was very challenging. The rain made it difficult to stay grounded because the dirt would turn to mud when wet, but we got creative and put planks of wood on the ground to help support and ground us. The most rewarding moments for me involved my interactions with Sandra and the group members. Sandra took such good care of us, she would bring us snacks and water while we worked. She noticed how focused I was and asked if she could give me a hug. It makes you feel good to know that the work you’re doing is being appreciated, and to know that the work you’re doing is going to help such a kind family. Another rewarding moment was seeing the connection and bond grow between the SEEK and COSL students. A lot of us had just met one week prior to the trip, so to see such a strong bond being built and how together we were able to help each other get the work done and help Sandra, was amazing.

During this trip, what did you learn about yourself, your team, and working with COSL?
A trip like this really transforms you into a better person. I knew I possessed leadership skills, but in Puerto Rico it all came to the surface and I realized how skillful and responsible I can be. Working with SEEK and COSL, I learned that we need each other’s support to complete projects such as these. You can’t do it alone. Both groups rose up to the occasion and supported each other through the heat and pouring rain, and never once did they complain. We worked hard and remained focus on the task because we knew that our effort wasn’t just restoring a home, it was also restoring a sense of peace and happiness, too.

Yesmine Kalam
Sandra and Yesmine share a hug

Yesmine Kalam ’19
Majors: Criminal Justice and Political Science

Tell us a bit about your COSL experience. What brought you to the program?
I was actually an active member of the CUNY Service Corps and the Semester of Service and learned about COSL through my experience there. I wanted to create connections with fellow students who have a like-minded approach to community service, being part of COSL was a great way of doing that.

What inspired you to want to take part in the service experience in Puerto Rico?
I’ve always been involved in volunteer work in some capacity. When this opportunity was offered, I immediately jumped at the chance. I love helping my community and love helping here on campus, so to be able to go somewhere else, like Puerto Rico, to help and use my hands-on skills was exciting.

Can you tell us about the hands-on work you did?
We all handled a variety of tasks. I worked on the same house Jaritza worked on. On my end, I helped clear and clean the space to make room for the new wall to be put up. I helped mix the sand and cement to build the wall. I also helped to cut the grass around Sandra’s house and removed the dead tree roots from the front and back yard. The clean up effort was about removing the broken infrastructure pieces and dead plants, and make way for the new wall.

“The island of Puerto Rico is beautiful, and its people are so welcoming. They had little and yet had so much energy and joy to give to us.” —Yesmine Kalam ’19

What were some of the most challenging aspects of the trip? And, what were some of the most rewarding moments?
It was physically exhausting, but I was working with a great team that lifted me up and kept me energized. Whenever I got tired, and they saw me struggling, they were quick to help me with the task I was doing or take over for a bit while I took a break. The most rewarding moment was just seeing Sandra’s joy and how happy her family was to have us there to help them. They had so much faith in us during the process. Knowing we had a hand in making their life better makes me so proud.

Yesmine helps with the clean up effort at Sandra’s house
Yesmine helps with the clean up effort at Sandra’s house

During this trip, what did you learn about yourself, your team, and working with the SEEK team?
It’s going to sound cliché, but the experience made me a better person and team player. The island of Puerto Rico is beautiful, and its people are so welcoming. They had little and yet had so much energy and joy to give to us. That is something that stays with you and it just makes you want to be better and do better. The spirit of collaboration that we experienced on the SEEK and COSL teams was awe-inspiring. The two groups definitely had respect towards one another prior to this trip, but I feel like this trip further strengthened our connection. It’s wonderful to see students from different backgrounds come together to bring joy and help to others.