Actors Ramon Rodriguez and Rosie Perez join forces with the all-volunteer HEART 9/11 — a band of firemen, police officers and union tradesmen — to rebuild communities

By Diane Herbst
June 19, 2019 05:30 PM
Hurricane Maria relief
Credit: Pa'lante documentary

When actor Ramón Rodriguez was in the midst of filming episodes of Showtime’s The Affair in September of 2017, Hurricane Maria was devastating Puerto Rico, where his father and other family live in the island’s mountain town of Orocovis.

For two weeks Rodriguez couldn’t contact anyone, with phone lines and electricity down. “It was really brutal, not being able to be there,” he tells PEOPLE.

As Rodriguez saw scene after scene on the news of buildings leveled and homes destroyed, and the U.S. government faced criticism for its response, 39-year-old Rodriguez felt compelled to do something.

He turned to a childhood friend and New York City firefighter, Joseph Gonzalez, part of an all-volunteer band of roofers, carpenters, police officers and firemen already on the island providing aid through the non-profit HEART 9/11 (Healing Emergency Aid Response Team). “He saw I was desperate to help,” says Rodriguez.

Within months, Rodriguez had reached out to just about everyone he knew to raise over $45,000 for HEART 9/11’s efforts to replace roofs blasted away by Maria and the other hurricane to hit the island that year, Irma.

Hurricane Maria relief
Heart 9/11 volunteer fixing roof in Puerto Rico
| Credit: Pa'lante documentary

He bonded with its founder, Bill Keegan, a retired Port Authority lieutenant who helped oversee recovery efforts after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and steered the group’s focus to the remote areas in the mountains, which were desperate for aid.

“He just wants to do things for people on a very personal level,” says Keegan. “He gets it. He saw suffering and pain like we did and he said I think I can help and I have to.”

Once filming on The Affair wrapped up, Rodriguez spent six weeks that December and January on the island with HEART 9/11 and experienced first hand what happened. He also worked on helping to bring clean water to several communities. “I was trying to find any way to help,” Rodriguez says. “There was so much of a need.”

Ramon Rodriguez
Ramón Rodriguez
| Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage

In early 2018, Keegan shared an idea with Rodriguez about HEART 9/11 volunteers training locals to repair roofs and become professionals through a pre-apprentice program. At the time, more than 60,000 roofs in Puerto Rico remained missing. Rodriguez was hooked. “It is a brilliant idea and a sustainable solution,” Rodriguez says. “It’s not just about going there to help — we’re helping them help themselves.”

By that February, Rodriguez was back in Puerto Rico with his best friend, the actress Rosie Perez, making a documentary on all that HEART 9/11 was doing, including teaching carpentry to locals.

The film, Pa’lante (Forward), follows townspeople impacted by Hurricane Maria and the help they receive from these strangers showing up to repair their ravaged homes.

“They are angels,” a woman says in the film after her roof was repaired. “Beautiful people.”

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Hurricane Maria

And HEART 9/11 continues to do good works. Some 1,600 volunteers with HEART 9/11 have fixed over 300 roofs in three communities; of those, 75 to 100 homes had to be fully reconstructed, says Keegan. The pre-apprentice program took off, with volunteer union construction workers from New York, New Jersey and Boston training 40 people to date.

Many volunteers, like the FDNY’s Gonzalez, go back again and again. Says Rodriguez: “They become like family to these communities.”

Another non-profit, Today I’m Brave, has helped with fundraising efforts. At its 2018 gala hosted by Rodriguez and Perez, over $500,000 was raised for its 100 Roofs Project, which funds HEART 9/11’s costs — including building supplies, tools and stipends for pre-apprentices.

Hurricane Maria relief
Homes without roofs in Puerto Rico

In early June, some of the carpenters, roofers and firemen of HEART 9/11 came to a screening of the film at The 9/11 Memorial Museum, along with Perez, Rodriguez and Keegan. Some would be back in Puerto Rico within the week to continue rebuilding and train pre-apprentices.

“There is no greater purpose than being able to help others that are in need,” Rodriguez says. “And I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do so.”