By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
As the plane carrying Trinity High School teachers Chad Waggoner and Maria Martin flew into San Juan, Puerto Rico, Oct. 25, a sea of blue tarpaulin was visible below.
Underneath were the remnants of houses destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which swept across the island Sept. 20. Waggoner and Martin, who traveled to Puerto Rico to take supplies for hurricane survivors, saw the destruction firsthand.
Martin, who has taught Spanish at Trinity for 14 years, is a native of Puerto Rico. Two of her sisters and most her other relatives still live on the island.
After the storm hit, the island lost power; communication with her relatives was impossible, she said.
“I was so upset. I felt they were OK, but it was killing me not being able to get in touch with them,” said Martin during an interview at the school Nov. 9. “The pain I felt was knowing they were suffering and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
The Trinity community saw her grief and responded.
Seeing his colleague’s distress and news footage of the destruction on the island, Waggoner said he wanted to help. He had a plane ticket that was about
to expire and decided he would use it to travel to Puerto Rico along with Martin. The two traveled to the island Oct. 25 to Oct. 28.
In a matter of days they raised $8,000, thanks to Trinity, St. Edward and St. Margaret Mary schools and individuals in the community.
“It was a community outreach and a terrific, beautiful response,” said Waggoner.
He and Martin also collected 1,100 pounds of supplies, including batteries, flashlights, diapers and radios — 800 pounds of which was flown to the island by a Trinity parent, said Waggoner. The airline allowed the teachers to transport the remainder of the supplies free of cost, he noted.
Though they’d seen news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, both teachers said the extent of the destruction could only be appreciated once they were on the island.
The storm caused damage everywhere they looked, they said.
“The storm did not discriminate. It just hit,” said Waggoner.
Martin said the houses of her relatives withstood the storm, but people living in moldy, flooded basements was common.
The storm may have taken their houses and worldly possessions, but not the people’s spirit, they noted.
“The spirit of the people is miraculous,” said Waggoner, noting that the attitude of the people moved her the most. “They had nothing, but felt they had so much, because they were alive and getting help.”
The teachers said they were particularly moved by a woman named Rita Castro. Castro was living in a flooded basement in Cupey, an impoverished community of about six families. She appeared to be the matriarch, they noted. Despite her circumstances, she remained grateful to God, offering only prayers of thanksgiving.
Need in impoverished communities like Castro’s, is great and it will take a long time to rebuild, they said. The teachers plan to continue walking with them.
“They are our brothers and sisters and they need our help,” said Waggoner.
Martin said, “We can’t just start something and walk away.”
Both plan to return in December. Martin and her sister plan to give out toys and groceries to needy families on Christmas day, she said.
In the meantime, there are ways to help:
n The Trinity teachers are collecting household items, such as bedding, towels, small kitchen items.
They are also seeking water purification tablets or filters, hand sanitizer and size C and D batteries, for the December trip.
n Waggoner and Martin said they are hoping to get parishes and schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville interested in forming partnerships with needy communities in Puerto Rico.
n Their biggest goal is to raise $40,000 to build a house for Castro — the one they envision will provide shelter from future hurricanes to Castro and the families in her community.
Individuals who are interested in helping the Puerto Rican people should contact Waggoner at 338-9479.