In the wake of Hurricane Maria’s destruction, a group of young professionals in San Juan have banded together to provide relief to as many friends, neighbors and strangers in need as they can. Using their connections, these young entrepreneurs have begun to fill in the gap as the government struggles to provide resources to the millions of storm victims.
“We see how bad it is, we see that the government has their hands full. This is a huge undertaking and there’s a vacuum where we can try and step in, leveraging our networks and our connections as best we can to help,” Christopher Foster, 33, tells PEOPLE. “There is a group of us starting to get together and brainstorm all the different things that we can do to try and help. Everybody has their own skillsets down here and we’re trying to bring them together. We have the opportunity to make a difference.”
These young entrepreneurs, who call their initiative Jóvenes x Puerto Rico (Young People for Puerto Rico), want to raise awareness for the 3 million residents who remain without power and running water. In the past week, they’ve mobilized restaurants to come together to deliver food to those in need. And they’re renting trucks filled with water and ice from distribution centers in San Juan and delivering them to other municipalities. Donate to Jóvenes x Puerto Rico’s GoFundMe account here.
“We were one of the few lucky ones who were able to have a little cell service and access to some WiFi, so we were able to deliver messages from Puerto Ricans to family members in the States,” says Jorge Sanders, 32, a communications consultant and medical cannabis facility manager. “And we’ve been delivering meals to people less fortunate than us. Here in San Juan, we are just two minutes away from the biggest airport in the Caribbean, yet there are people here who are dying without food and water.”
Adds Ramon Ortiz, 31, a lawyer originally from Ponce: “We’re taping into our contacts and clients stateside who want to help. We want to go where the people need the help.”
“When you’re here on the ground, you see the reality, and it’s just so far from the perception that’s trying to be created,” says Foster, a small business owner and entrepreneur who is originally from New York. “This is basic supply and demand issue.”
“You have to go out there and see the suffering,” adds Sanders, who just days ago traveled to his hometown of Aguadilla, 82 miles west of San Juan, to see the devastation firsthand. “There is no doubt that the reason the crisis hasn’t been worse is because Puerto Ricans have been helping out their brothers and sisters and not waiting for aid that has never come.”
“The biggest difference — besides how long the lines outside the stores are compared to those in San Juan — were the faces of the people in those lines,” he says of his visit to Aguadilla. “They were faces that you only see in movies or TV shows — the anguish that only comes with not being able to find food or water for you and your children. We need more action.”
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While the island tries to recover from the damage, these young professionals are also considering the economic future of the island, which was already crippled by a debt crisis before the storm hit.
“How do we survive on our own and get our businesses up and running and at the same time try to address all the big picture things that are going on and help people out?” says Foster. “If this island does not receive a huge injection of capital, guidance and resources from the federal government, we will be at risk of really not being able to come back together the way that we need to. We need to continue to try to get that message out.”
Despite the challenges ahead, they have resolved to stay on the island and rebuild their businesses — and inspire others to do the same.
“A huge fear we have is that other young professionals and entrepreneurs are going to leave Puerto Rico because it would be easier to leave everything behind and start over,” says Foster. “So federal assistance will have a direct correlation to people staying.”
Adds Ortiz: “We need more help. We need more money, we need an injection of people going to areas that need assistance — it’s only going to get worse. We don’t want people to forget two weeks to a month from now that this is still going on.”