As soon as I saw the plastic bag full of shoulder pads hanging in the closet, I grasped our shared humanity. Millennial colleagues who were with me on our recent JUF/TOV* trip to Puerto Rico to help with Hurricane Maria relief may not have even recognized them. After all, we were at a house with a destroyed roof, mud-caked floors and patio furniture grown over with weeds and trees. Inside rooms bulged from floor to ceiling with a hoarder’s collection of photos, papers, books and whatnots.
“You are absolutely throwing these away!” I said to Luci,** holding up the bag of shoulder pads. And I didn’t say that just because of the hurricane…I had only thrown mine away last year.
Shoulder pads were the secret badge of power worn by any successful business woman in the 80’s. Come the 90s, we had to slowly but surely remove those shoulder pads from dresses and suits to stay in style. But secretly, we still loved them. We hung them in the safety of our closets or at the bottom of dresser drawers, patiently waiting for the day they came back in style (they haven’t).
When a bruised ego drives action
And if it hadn’t been for my ego, I wouldn’t have even been open to finding shared humanity in this place far from home.
On our first morning of work I took one look at the loud, boisterous owner and her house with its six dogs, two cats and an overwhelming smell of urine and mildew and proclaimed, “I’ll take roof duty!” My son instead opted to work inside to help move out heavy boxes and debris. At the end of the day I left with a sweat-soaked shirt and excruciating back pain. My son on the other hand got to learn all about Luci and her life. He had even offered to feed the six dogs and two cats I’d been quick to dismiss.
I immediately cringed. I talk about the importance of interculturalism to the core. But when it was time to actually connect with someone who was different, I judged while my son leaned in. I was proud and jealous at the same time.
So come day two—out of competition with my own child and too much pride to admit my dying back could not physically spend another day on that roof—I took a Benadryl, donned a face mask and headed inside to help Luci sort through and get rid of things she had clearly been accumulating since long before the hurricane.
Know them…no them
As I spent the day side-by-side with her, surrounded by her belongings, her story emerged. She shared that she’d been a high-powered advertising executive who built her own nearly-$1 million agency, before working for another agency covering all of the Caribbean. Boxes of premiums from well-known clients and art boards of her original designs affirmed her talent and success. Her company had wanted her to move to Miami to save travel costs. She declined because her mom had just been diagnosed with cancer at the time. Wheelchairs, crutches, stacks of x-rays and medical records documented that part of her story. A photo album from her quinceañera showed a vibrant young girl. The portrait on the wall captured the exquisite beauty of the loving mother who had since passed away.
In less than five years Luci had lost her job, her mother and her home. This could have paralyzed anyone.
Nechama, the group coordinating our work on the ground in Puerto Rico had warned us ahead of time. “Don’t judge by the house,” they told us. “Sometimes big houses have been in families for generations, but the people living in them currently do not have means.” And indeed that was the case with Luci and her partner.
We think “That would never happen to me”
Our “by the bootstraps” mentality in the US predisposes you to blame the victim. We say things like “That would never happen to me,” and “I would never live like that” as a way to protect and justify ourselves. And on day one, as 20 of us from Chicago descended on this one house, to help this one couple, you couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this all we came here to do?”
Often (always?) the universe places you exactly where you need to be. I have no doubt I was the right person to be with Luci as she made decision after decision in quick succession of what to keep and what to throw away from things accumulated over a lifetime. Each piece was part of a story that began long before the hurricane.
Sometimes bad things happen and people get overwhelmed. The smart part is when they know to ask for assistance. The beautiful part is when we all come together to support our fellow humans in need. Because humanity is not about how “that would never happen to me,” but instead recognizing that “this could have happened to me.”
Organizations on the ground, helping in Puerto Rico
And how wonderful is it that there are so many organizations and people ready and willing to help? On our five-day mission to Puerto Rico we saw several purpose-driven organizations working together and independently for a common cause.
We met with IsraAID who was building a sustainable, gravity-fueled water filtration system for the remote community of Patillas, which has been without potable water for an entire year. We also met with Chabad who had received disaster relief aid from JUF. They introduced us to their partners at PR4PR who provided protection for delivery of food and relief in dangerous neighborhoods. We met with a board member from Temple Beth Shalom, the local reform congregation who was a contractor. He generously offered a power-washer and one of his workers to man-it to help with the arduous roof project.
The CEO at The Foundation for Puerto Rico told us how they are helping small businesses—a single business wiped out by the hurricane might impact 10 or more families. They also showed us the incubator space they created for other NGO’s to drive not only Hurricane Maria Relief, but also ongoing economic development for Puerto Rico.
We accomplished so much in Luci’s home while we were there, and there are still so many other families who need assistance and restabilization after the aftermath of this tragedy. We can’t save the world by ourselves. But maybe one woman’s shoulder pads will remind you of the connection that we all share, that it’s never too late to lend a helping hand, and that even small gestures make a big impact.
*Jewish United Fund of greater Chicagoland’s Tikkun Olam Volunteer Network
**Name changed for privacy