I opened my journal, turned slowly to a new page, and pushed my pen lightly against the blank paper. Words began to pour out of the ballpoint with little hesitation: “When you push yourself outside of your comfort zone, you learn to grow. You adopt a new lens through which to see the world and garner a better perspective on who you are along the way.”
This passage I wrote was quite literally the beginning of a new chapter for me, the start of my week-long trip to Puerto Rico with 21 other Syracuse University students to assist in hurricane relief efforts. Maria struck the island nation more than three months ago.
We sat anxiously on the bus headed to the airport before the sun had even risen. In that moment, we were all aware of what conditions to expect across the island. However, it wasn’t until we arrived that the reality of the devastation had settled in.
Nearly every house is either damaged or destroyed. Families are scavenging for clean water to drink. Countless trees, fences, and light poles rest on the sidewalks, and approximately half of the island remains without electricity. This is not the sight of a territory that was struck by a hurricane one week ago. These images describe a place that has been striving to recover since late September.
Day after day, goose bumps ran through my body at these chilling scenes. My peers and I were often brought to tears, overcome by emotion, a mix of both despondence and fear. But we quickly learned that while many roofs and street lights are broken, the people of Puerto Rico are not.
We heard a myriad of stories of resilience and strength, people taking time to share their personal narratives with us. Some said goodbye to family members who fled to the mainland U.S., some are still rationing their meals each day, and some no longer have a stable home to live in. But none have lost faith in humanity or hope for the future of Puerto Rico.
The fortitude and selflessness across the island was simply undeniable and in turn, contagious. I had the privilege of using my passion for journalism to connect with dozens of people in Spanish each day. Their authentic statements and honest pleas have stuck with me, and I am certain they will continue to do so.
One woman, who had to relocate from her husband and child for a work opportunity after the hurricane, worded it best: “Maria has changed the life of all of us. In one way or another, it has. Now we are trying to reinvent. We are searching for certainty in the uncertainty.”
This was a frightening reality. My peers and I realized that recovery in the coming months is not guaranteed. Repairs, progress, and revival across the island could take years and at this rate, it very well may. That epiphany was a spark of motivation for us. How could we make a difference in one week’s time?
Each day, we set out on a mission to answer that question. We created and supplied family food packs to those in need. We hand-delivered those packages to households and established sincere and deep relationships along the way. We distributed water filters and taught individuals how to properly use them, step by step. We danced and sang at a nursing home outside of San Juan to spread love and holiday spirit. Above all else, we brought hope … and perhaps that was more valuable than any material item we could provide.
Rather than traveling directly home for winter break, our Syracuse University team decided to use that time to better ourselves by bettering others. The week was filled with moments of pride and glimpses of the future that we saw for the people we assisted. As helpful as we felt in those instances, there was often a feeling of futility. Because the reality is, there is so much more to be accomplished.
Together, we gathered from this: you cannot always change the world but you can change somebody’s world. Our weeklong mission did just that. This holiday season, I received the best present of all: the gift of giving. And I can assure you … it was priceless.
Candiotti, a 2014 Hewlett High School graduate, is a senior at Syracuse University.