Finding Family in Puerto Rico

Shelby had been attending Hoboken Grace for only a few weeks when she started looking into this year’s mission trips. When she saw that a team was going to Puerto Rico to help those affected by Hurricane Maria, she knew she had to go.

The people they’d be helping could have been her family, Shelby thought. At one point, the storm had been on track to hit their home in South Florida.

For Astrid, the people who ended up in the storm’s crosshairs are family. She grew up in Puerto Rico, and all of her relatives – cousins, aunts, uncles, everyone — are scattered around the island. It was her family she thought of when she saw news reports about the hundreds of thousands of people still without power or running water months later. Since the storm hit, she’d been praying for a way to help.

“It hit home because it is home,” she said.

When Astrid learned Hoboken Grace was organizing a trip to help with recovery efforts, it was the answer to a prayer.

So late last month, Shelby, Astrid and eight other people from Hoboken Grace traveled to Guayanabo, right outside San Juan. They partnered with a dozen people from two other churches, also there to assist with the recovery.

Each day, they were tasked with different projects – painting, fixing roofs, distributing food and water (including one day with the National Guard). One day, a team dug up a home’s entire water system, replacing pipes and putting in new walls.

“The stuff that we accomplished … I still can’t comprehend how we did it so quickly,” said Shelby.

Shelby’s team spent one day working at a house that was covered in mold. They ripped out cabinets and then went to work clearing a deck that was completely buried in vines and debris.

“It was heartbreaking that in that debris you would find cabinets, and wall outlets from other people’s homes,” she said. To their surprise, they found a driveway underneath as they continued to clear the area.

At another home, Shelby’s team moved 200 cement blocks and filled in a trench in the rain.

“We definitely leaned on each other,” she said, and it helped that everyone they met had been so welcoming, inviting them into their homes even if they didn’t have running water.

The people they met were so grateful, said Astrid, no matter how small the project.

“No matter where we went, no matter how ravaged it was, they had such faith, such joy,” she added.

Throughout the week, Astrid saw people coming together and helping one another — neighbors checking on each other, younger people making sure the elderly had water and were taking medication. It reminded her of how people had interacted when she was growing up in Puerto Rico, a way of life that had begun to disappear before the storm.

Everyone treated the team like family as well, Astrid said, especially the church in Guayanabo where they were based that week. Church members did an amazing job caring for them, she said, setting up the entire week and ensuring they were well-fed each night.

And the team – all 22 people from three churches — also felt like family throughout the week, Shelby and Astrid said.

“We were fast friends,” said Shelby, who didn’t know anyone on the trip from Hoboken Grace before signing up.

“From the beginning, we hit it off immediately,” said Astrid. “We didn’t feel like strangers at all.”

Each person seemed to be there for a reason, Shelby said. Everyone was vital to the team in their own way. Some had experience when it came to the repairs. Others knew Spanish, which helped them communicate and pray with those they met. And then there were the two people with culinary experience, who made everyone a gourmet-style breakfast each morning.

But what’s more was the way everyone encouraged each other throughout the week. No one complained or expressed negativity, despite how exhausted they were. Everyone was excited to serve.

“If someone asked for help, five people would jump up,” Shelby said.

It was moments like these that Shelby and Astrid say they’ll always remember – the way they saw people caring for one another, the way they saw people pray for one another.

While it was a sense of family that drew both of them to Puerto Rico, Shelby and Astrid left with another family – the nearly two dozen people they’d served with. A week after the trip, they’re still talking, sharing photos and messages over emails and group texts.

“I have never felt so much love in one place,” said Shelby. “Like I said, I didn’t know anyone before the trip. But when everyone met on the first day, we were like, OK, we’re here, we’re family now.”

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