DE PERE — Lourain Eggart, Spanish teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School, enjoyed teaching her students about her Puerto Rican culture. She discussed the beauty of the island, the music and the food. Following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, that changed.
“I always shared with them how great it was growing up there,” said Eggart. “This time, I had to share the tragedy of this phenomenal storm.”
Eggart was born and raised in Arecibo, on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. She moved to Wisconsin at age 16.
“My parents lost their jobs and decided to start a new life in Milwaukee with a better education for myself,” she explained. “My uncle had a friend in Milwaukee who said there were job opportunities that paid well. My stepdad relocated first and, six months later, my mom and I moved.”
Her immediate family left grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on the island. Eggart, an only child, is especially close to her cousins.
“In our culture, we consider cousins our brothers and sisters and our cousins’ kids become my nieces and nephews,” she said.
Eggart has made trips back to Puerto Rico over the years. She teaches her own children the culture. Aware of the pending hurricane, Eggart spoke to family members in Arecibo on Sept. 19 and the morning of Sept. 20. She was unable to communicate with her family again until two weeks after Maria hit the island.
“It was hard. They are still without power and water,” she said. “I received the first call with my seventh grade class. When I got the call, I just started crying. I had told everybody at school that I needed to take the call when it comes. My cousin lost his home. My aunt lost half of her ceiling. The town where I grew up looked like a fire went through it. Downtown was all torn down by the waves.”
A longtime friend, a teacher in Puerto Rico, whom Eggart considers her sister, spent 48 hours in a bathroom during the hurricane and aftermath. Eggart also learned that her cousin, in the days following Hurricane Maria, had to wait two days in line for gasoline.
“I asked, ‘How can I help?’ My cousin said, ‘We are good.’ You told me you lost everything, how can you not need anything?” said Eggart. “They are humble that way. I knew that I had to do something.”
Our Lady of Lourdes School families contacted her with a desire to help. Eggart even heard from alumni now attending Notre Dame Academy and West De Pere High School.
“I’m very grateful and blessed,” she said. “One parent approached me and said that we should do something to raise money. I didn’t know where to start.”
The school held a penny war and a dress- down day to raise funds. Donations were collected at parent-teacher conferences and at Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
“We are not the biggest Catholic school with 180 kids, so it was amazing to raise $4,000,” said principal Jeff Young. “Lourain did a nice presentation for all the kids. I think it’s a valuable lesson that they learn that when people have lost everything, it’s up to us to respond very positively and help them out.”
Young added that one student donated her birthday money.
The funds will be sent directly to Eggart’s family, the Sotos, to help their needs and support their parish, Nuestra Señora de Fatima. Eggart was able to ship a battery-operated fan to her family in the weeks after the hurricane. Her family members, who are together in one house, are resourceful, she said. Clothes are washed by hand in the river. A tire rim has been turned into a fire pit for cooking.
“It’s going to take years and years to get back to where it was before the hurricane,” said Eggart. “People are going to continue to rebuild. The cruise lines are not going to Puerto Rico, which really hurts (the economy). It’s hard seeing what they are going through, especially when you are away.”
Nuestra Señora de Fatima Church escaped damage and opened as a shelter. Members of the parish take food to towns not being served by FEMA. The spirit of the people will help them persevere, said Eggart.
“They have their faith and it will get better,” she said. “I would love to go. I think it would hit me really hard.”