Our second day in Puerto Rico was our service day in the community.
By 8:30 we were on a bus headed to our first stop, a home for the elderly. What a great way to start the day with a group of people who were awaiting our visit. We spread out throughout the two story facility to distribute small gifts to each and every resident. Many were still sleeping upon our arrival, but were soon awake and telling us their stories. I myself met Pedro, a man who spent the majority of his life in NYC and is the father to 18 children. I had to have him tell me that part twice. His youngest two are 28 and the oldest are in their 60s. He is 82 years old and told me emphatically that he enjoyed his life – especially his time in NYC. We talked about finding ways to enjoy life every day, and how important it is to do that. I didn’t leave before making him sit up and take a picture with me. I observed our bilingual Tivity colleagues translating for fellow colleagues and residents to ensure everyone had an opportunity to visit. Many had no family in the area and we were grateful to have the time with them.
From there we made a quick stop at K-Mart to prepare for our visit to Hogar de Ninos de Cupey, a safe haven for young girls. While gift bags had already been purchased for them, we all wanted to buy them something special. It reminded me of holiday shopping, with colleagues in every corner of the store in our matching shirts. Bubbles, perfume, bracelets, coloring books and headbands were bought to supplement the swimsuits and towels already purchased.
Hogar de Ninos de Cupey is located at the top of a hill and allows for large, sweeping views of San Juan. The grounds are vast and well-kept with a private swimming pool, a grassy field and a basketball court. The girls live in a small group of houses bunched together at the end of the parking lot. They arrive at the safe haven from child protective services, and it’s hard to imagine the types of experiences they’ve had that no child should ever have to endure. Some stay months before returning to their families and some years. Others graduate to a transitional home on the edge of the property at the age of 18 before entering the real world.
A group of nuns runs Hogar de Ninos de Cupey and their focus is on creating a family like closeness as much as possible. A nun is assigned to each of the houses with a group of 6 to 8 girls. The girls spend their days together when they’re not at school, and sisterly bonds typically form because of how close they become.
Their bonds were evident as they skipped down the hill to meet us, many of them holding hands. A pizza lunch helped us break the ice, and soon we were learning their names and favorite things. After lunch we passed out the gifts by calling out their names one by one. The bubbles were a big hit and the air was full of them. One of the girls was a singer and she sang to us over the microphone. She was very nervous and it was so brave of her to perform for us. I was inspired by her willingness to conquer her fear. The nun from her house was there with a motherly embrace as soon as she finished.
While many of us coming into the trip were focused on the manual labor we would provide to homes devastated by the hurricane as our primary contribution, our service day was a beautiful reminder of how the most important thing is people no matter how you serve them and honoring the connections that exist among each and every one of us.