By Kpojo Kparyea
A fire truck blocking a lane of traffic in front of the Puerto Rican restaurant La Isla on October 8 wasn’t there to put out a fire. The truck was brought in to help with donation boxes.
It was part of the restaurant’s hurricane relief fundraiser for Puerto Rico, which also featured Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal as a speaker.
Off to the sides of the restaurant, coal pits were set up to roast pigs later in the day while a crowd gathered in front of the restaurant. On the sidewalks in front of the restaurant, three tables were set up. One table was headed by little girls selling cupcakes while another table sold black T-shirts. Printed on the shirts: a blue fist with the words “Puerto Rico” in the center.
At the third table La Isla volunteers Yaniz Padilla and Gaby Bergollo worked a prize wheel. For $20, people spun the wheel to win prizes like a Spanish tortilla omelette or action figures. Padilla, a psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, got involved in the fundraiser after she saw a Facebook post the restaurant made asking for volunteers.
“Volunteers procured the items,” Padilla said, while standing in front of the prize wheel. “A lot of donations come from surrounding stores.”
The restaurant was raising money for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The restaurant was able to raise about $16,000 in aid from the event. The money made from the event was added to the online fundraising page set up by the restaurant, intended to buy supplies for Puerto Rico and some of their travel volunteers plan to deliver them directly to the island. A few of the travel volunteers were people who lived in Puerto Rico but came to the mainland because of the hurricane; some already had tickets to go to the island.
Bergollo is one of the travel volunteers going to Puerto Rico, and she plans to leave right after the fundraiser. Next to her was her green suitcase filled with care kits to give to the hurricane victims.“There is aid, but it’s not getting to people,” Bergollo said.
Bergollo had concerns about aid reaching those in rural areas. As of Oct. 16, only 392 miles of Puerto Rico’s 5,073 miles of roads were open, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These numbers mean not even 8 percent of roads are accessible on the island. The government of Puerto Rico also reports that less than 14 percent of people have access to electricity and only 72 percent of people have access to water.
La Isla is making sure that volunteers like Bergollo deliver care kits with water purification tablets, first aid kits, and flashlights.
Vincente Bravo, the general manager of La Isla, was born in Puerto Rico in 1978 and moved to Washington in 2008. He has worked at the restaurant for nine years, and is one of the founders for the relief fund. He said that the group is focusing on places the government is not focusing on. “Places deep in the mountains,” he said.
Places like Utuado, a town located in the mountains where Bergollo delivered the care kits that were made by La Isla volunteers. Bergollo returned to Washington on Oct. 17 after staying in Puerto Rico for about a week. “A lot of houses were destroyed,” Bergollo said over the phone. “A lot of people lost everything.”
Bergollo, who was born in Puerto Rico and is currently in her second year grad program at the University of Washington, was surprised by the state of things in Puerto Rico. “It’s not the Puerto Rico I saw last time I was here, which was in May,” she said.
Bergollo was able to distribute the care kits to those who needed them with the help of a local pastor, who had knowledge of the community. The kits were initiated by Erika Brown, head of the the travel committee for the relief fund. The kits started after Brown realized that one of the volunteers was heading to Puerto Rico and had space to take items.
The distribution of the donations is currently at the travel volunteer’s own discretion, but Brown hopes to change that. “We are trying to seek out a shelter, a school, or an organization that’s assisting more than just one family,” Brown said.
Though the group has been receiving monetary donations as well as supplies, their biggest issue, according to Brown, is transporting donations to Puerto Rico. Things like the Jones Act of 1920 make shipping prices expensive. Though the act was waived by the Trump administration after the hurricane, the waiver has since expired.
The Jones Act of 1920 requires ships to be owned and staffed by American citizens or permanent residents when goods are shipped from one American port to another. So, anything shipped to and from Puerto Rico is expensive because the ships do not have international competition. The group is still focused on transport and getting donations to rural areas. However, Brown’s latest goal is to provide family kits that will include items like soap, peroxide and even diapers.
One big accomplishment for the group of volunteers was establishing themselves as a non-profit called La Isla Hurricane Relief Fund. “We are very grassroots,” Brown said, “but to say that doesn’t mean it’s not getting done.”
The group has created a board, with Brown as co-president. According to Brown, La Isla secured a spot on a container that will be sent to Puerto Rico. The container will be provided by Costco and La Isla is allowed to add about 1,000 pounds of donations.
Though they are grassroots, Brown hopes that people are encouraged by the assistance of their organization.
“It could have been our natural disaster,” Brown said. “We gotta help our fellow Americans.”
Kpojo Kparyea is a student with the University of Washington’s News Lab.