ALLOUEZ — What began as an effort by two members of St. Willebrord Parish to help family and friends affected by Hurricane Maria has mushroomed into a major relief project organized by parish and diocesan leaders.
The project, “Breaking Bread with Puerto Rico: Home for Christmas,” includes a fundraiser on Friday, Nov. 17, at St. Willebrord Church. It continues with a trip to Puerto Rico in December to serve Christmas meals to parish families.
Like the hurricane that hit the island of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, the “Breaking Bread with Puerto Rico” fundraiser quickly picked up momentum after Maria Garcia and Griselle Montalvo, Puerto Rican natives and members of St. Willebrord Parish, began looking for ways to assist families and friends on the Caribbean island.
“In the beginning, when everyone was trying to contribute or do something for Puerto Rico, we really had a lot of closed doors because we couldn’t ship anything,” said Garcia. “A lot of the items actually making it to Puerto Rico were not being distributed to other areas than the north, so we were concerned about our families in the southern part.”
Montalvo is from Ponce and Garcia is from Juana Diaz, both neighboring cities in the south.
The logistics of reaching the southern communities posed an immediate challenge, so Garcia and Montalvo chose another idea. “We were trying to figure out — if we did gather some money from the parish — what we would do, so we thought about Christmas,” said Garcia.
“Christmas is a really important time for us, like it is in the U.S., but it is a time to gather with family — usually big families in Puerto Rico,” she said. Knowing that Christmas might not be as cheerful this year, the women decided they would collect funds for food.
As their plans unfolded, word got out at the diocesan offices, where Garcia serves as administrative assistant for the diocesan Department of New Evangelization.
“Jane Angha (young adult coordinator for the Department of Evangelization) came in and suggested that we gather with the young adults in an effort to do something for Puerto Rico,” said Garcia. Angha, Franciscan Sr. Laura Zelten, who serves as director of Catholic Campus Ministry at UW-Green Bay, and Emily Jenks, Fox Cities regional coordinator for Young Adult Ministry, are assisting with the Nov. 17 event. Young adults from the Appleton and Green Bay areas, along with UW-Green Bay students, will assist them.
“We’ve got lots of things planned besides the meal,” said Angha. “We’ve got a PowerPoint put together where they can learn a bit about what’s happening (in Puerto Rico) and why we are doing this.” She said it was important to her and Sr. Laura that an educational component be included in the evening.
“This is part of our Catholic foundation that we serve and walk in solidarity with those who are hungry,” she said, “and it happens to fall right in our midst, where our neighbors, our co-workers, families are struggling. The outpouring has just been beautiful.”
Garcia and Montalvo, along with Angha and Jenks, will travel to Puerto Rico Dec. 18-23. They will fly to San Juan and drive south to Juana Diaz, where they will stay at the home of one of Garcia’s relatives. Their plan is to purchase food in Puerto Rico, which will help the local economy. Then they will cook a traditional Puerto Rican meal, featuring rice with gandules and pork, and serve meals to people at four parishes. They have been in touch with the Diocese of Ponce to help organize the Christmas meals.
Preparing meals and sharing them with neighbors is one tradition Garcia remembers about Christmas in Puerto Rico. “We can imagine how sad it’s going to be for everyone when they can barely have anything for themselves, and then they can’t do it for others,” she said. “So right away we thought that this was something we could do for Christmas.”
Garcia said members of the diocesan Curia have embraced their fundraising project. “From day one, they have been concerned,” she said. “It’s just been overwhelming how much love people have shown through this whole really difficult process. When you feel helpless, it’s good to have people who are praying for you.”
Garcia explained that money raised will be used for the Christmas meals and rental of a van to transport the food. A grant the group received will cover airfare to and from Puerto Rico. Garcia, who was 9 years old and living in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Hugo hit the island in 1989, is grateful not only for the outpouring of support from her parish and diocesan family. She’s also thankful for the safety of family members living in Puerto Rico.
“My main concern was my mother-in-law, who is in her 70s,” she said. “She has a chronic heart condition, and I worried that she would not be able to tolerate the stress of living through that hurricane.”
Four days after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico, Garcia and her husband, Luis, received a call from her mother-in-law. “I cannot describe the happiness and relief I felt when I heard her voice,” she said. “She cried and laughed and praised God because her home was OK. There was minimal damage. She told me how horrible it was (and that) it sounded like a monster was roaming outside. She said she fell asleep praying and God heard her prayers.”
Garcia said that electrical power has been restored to about 20 percent of the population and that many areas still have no running water. “My heart still breaks to think that so many people, including children and the elderly are without the things they need for their basic needs. Things we so often take for granted,” she said.
According to Garcia, her last visit to Puerto Rico was in July 2014. “It was green and lush and as beautiful as I remembered it,” she said. “This year will be different. I am preparing myself mentally and spiritually because I know it will be hard to face the devastation.”