Milagros GonzalezWhen people asked Milagros Gonzalez’s sons where she was this July, the teens had a proud answer: “She’s rebuilding Puerto Rico!”

The Binghamton native was selected as a participant in the SUNY Stands with Puerto Rico Service Learning opportunity this summer. Hundreds of students throughout the SUNY system took part, working with non-profit organizations to assist in rebuilding efforts on the island.

A part of SUNY Broome’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Gonzalez learned about the opportunity from college President Kevin E. Drumm, who mentioned it to EOP students. She was immediately interested and applied two days before the deadline.

Her mother was born in Puerto Rico; although she moved to New York at the age of 3, she still had friends connected to the island, Gonzalez explained. She was also inspired by the local community’s efforts to aid their fellow Americans in the wake of the hurricane, with an American Legion breakfast and other fundraisers.

A damaged home in Puerto Rico.

A damaged home in Puerto Rico.

“There were over 2,500 applicants and only 500 were accepted from schools across the state,” said the second-year Human Services major. “A week before departure, on July 1, I got my acceptance letter. Then I was like, ‘Yay!’”

Tough and rewarding

Women were the majority of participants during the session of the program Gonzalez attended, which departed from John F. Kennedy International Airport. During the journey, they had the opportunity to speak with a college student from Puerto Rico, heading back home after receiving a scholarship that allowed her to continue her education in Connecticut, Gonzalez remembered.

They arrived in San Juan, where they stayed in housing at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón. Even before they headed out to the job site with the non-profit NECHAMA, they could see the lasting impact of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the Caribbean last year.

SUNY students chatted with Puerto Rico resident Freddy Lopez, who lost family members in Hurricane Maria.

SUNY students chatted with Puerto Rico resident Freddy Lopez, who lost family members in Hurricane Maria.

“They still had broken windows and they were still leaking in the meeting room,” she said. “The next morning, we got to work.”

Further out from the university, the damage was even more pronounced: light poles through roofs, housing still uninhabitable from storm damage. Nonprofits each took a share of the work: NECHAMA, the group the students worked with, tackled the living quarters while HEART 9/11, which had volunteer teams of skilled professionals, worked on the light poles and other aspects of the power grid.

Gonzalez’ work sites had four teams of 10 to 13 people each; two teams typically worked on the roof, and another on the interior. Others went on tool runs. While the teams rotated, Gonzalez stayed put since she also acted as the team’s Spanish translator. She worked mostly on the roofs – an admittedly tough job in a tropical climate.

“By Thursday, we had blisters. Our hands were swollen. We wrapped each other up,” she said.

SUNY students also met former Black Panther Leon Hobbs, who lives on the island. "People in Puerto Rico have your back," he told them.

SUNY students also met former Black Panther Leon Hobbs, who lives on the island. “People in Puerto Rico have your back,” he told them.

Despite the devastation, the people of Puerto Rico were generous and appreciative. They shared food, resources and clean water with one another during the worst of times, and thanked the volunteers for their work.

“They were still happy people. They were like, ‘Listen, you’ve got to make the best of what you have,’” Gonzalez said.

One moment – among many profound moments — that stuck out: Talking with resident Freddy Lopez, an elderly Vietnam War veteran who lost family members during the hurricane.

“He was telling us, ‘We’re Americans, too.’ It was a real eye-opener. Why are they still under these conditions?” said Gonzalez, shaking her head. “We got done with three homes. While it was really hard, we felt we didn’t do enough. There are so many kids with asthma living under these conditions, trying to survive through it, making the best of it.”

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

Ironically, the students got word of another hurricane headed toward the island during their stay there, their phones chiming in unison with an alert warning. It turned out to be a tropical storm, but her family back home was worried – as was Milagros herself.

“It really hit me: I’m far away from home. I can’t just jump in a car,” she said. The people of Puerto Rico, while they were diligently preparing for the storm, were unperturbed; no other hurricane could inflict the damage of Maria, they told her.

Not only was this the first time Milagros took part in a recovery effort, it was also the first time she ever lived in a residence hall. While they did take part in excursions to old San Juan, the SUNY students typically worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and sometimes later, followed by a meeting and discussion. They headed to bed early, exhausted but filled with a sense of mission.

SUNY students working with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico.

SUNY students working with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico.

“During that time, we may have had our differences, but when we were on the roof, we were a unit,” she said. “I met amazing people; I would do it again and again. It was rewarding, especially when people came up and told their stories.”

‘You push forward’

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Gonzalez learned about SUNY Stands with Puerto Rico through EOP, which provides support to first-time students seeking to reach their educational goals.

Milagros Gonzalez works on a home in Puerto Rico.

Milagros Gonzalez works on a home in Puerto Rico.

Juggling both a job and a family, she is a non-traditional student, meaning that she is older than many of her peers who attend college directly out of high school. (About a third of SUNY Broome students are typically considered non-traditional, or adult learners.) She had long wanted to pursue her education, but needed to wait until her two children were old enough; a promotion at her job in the Binghamton City School District’s mailroom also gave her the flexibility she needed to head back to class.

At first, going to college proved a bit overwhelming, she acknowledged. “I was the oldest person in class. I’m the first one to go through college in my family, period,” she said.

EOP has provided needed support, both academically and personally. “They’re my team! They’re my therapeutic session,” Gonzalez exclaimed. “They were always there for me.”

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

She has also taken advantage of SUNY Broome’s support services, including an academic coach and the Writing Center, and found a tutor when she struggled in an online Spanish course. (She’s a bit embarrassed over that, being a fluent Spanish speaker – but literary language isn’t quite the same as conversational language, she acknowledged.)

Her professors, too, have helped propelled her toward success – “All of them were amazingly great,” she said — and she currently holds a grade point average of 3.6. Just like Gonzalez, one of her professors started out with a GED, making her feel a little less alone.

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

SUNY students volunteering with NECHAMA in Puerto Rico, including Milagros Gonzalez.

She plans on graduating in May 2019 and transferring to Binghamton University. Her ultimate goal: to become a social worker, working perhaps in a school setting.

“I want to let kids know – and even adults – that you can always change; there is always a chance. As you get older and you find yourself, you push forward,” she said.

Milagros Gonzalez works on a home in Puerto Rico.

Milagros Gonzalez works on a home in Puerto Rico.

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