Despite the snowy weather on Thursday, over 40 people showed up for a forum at the New Haven Lawn Club about progress in Puerto Rico following the debilitating effects of Hurricane Maria.

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria — a Category Five storm — devastated the island of Puerto Rico. The Progreso Latino Fund, the philanthropic arm of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven dedicated to supporting the local Latino community, hosted the forum to commemorate and continue the relief and rebuilding effort post-Hurricane Maria. The event featured the Honorable Julia Nazario Fuentes, mayor of Loíza, Puerto Rico, and Nelson Colón, CEO and president of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation.

“Let’s not talk about the disaster. Let’s talk about the hope and the concrete work that is underway,” said Caprice Taylor Mendez, strategic program manager at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. “We should all galvanize support in the rebuilding of Puerto Rico, in a way that is more grounded in meeting the needs of the local community, more grounded in self-sustainability.”

During the panel discussion moderated by Universal Healthcare Foundation of Connecticut President Frances Padilla, Colón and Fuentes discussed the work of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations in response to Hurricane Maria. Both panelists gave presentations about the work they were doing and their cooperative efforts to improve conditions in Puerto Rico. They emphasized the optimistic attitude of many Puerto Ricans today despite receiving little support from the Puerto Rican and U.S. government after the natural disaster.

Last year, the Progreso Latino Fund collaborated with the philanthropic organization Community Foundation of Puerto Rico to raise thousands for disaster relief within the island.

Today, the partnerships between the two foundations have continued. In his presentation, Colón emphasized the connection between Connecticut, which has a large population of Puerto Ricans, and the island itself. Due to Hurricane Maria, over 1,300 people evacuated to Connecticut, and over 300 families moved to the Greater New Haven area during the storm. He called for schools in the United States to “develop a sense of readiness” and welcome students coming from Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico is still part of the United States, that’s something that people can’t forget,” said Mendez. “Latinos here are saying, ‘We will not allow for Latinos anywhere to suffer.’ We have a lot of needs here locally, but we still have the capacity to give. We are also a resource.”

During Thursday’s forum, the speakers also focused on the development of sustainable projects in Puerto Rico. Fuentes mentioned that the Puerto Rico Community Foundation helped Loíza construct 225 solar-powered houses using money donated by the Ricky Martin Foundation. The Community Foundation is also developing community solar microgrids around Puerto Rico which the community will run and distribute.

Outside of rebuilding communities, nonprofits are also contributing to the social and economic progress in Puerto Rico. At the event, Colón announced that the Puerto Rico Community Foundation received a grant from the Obama Foundation to work with young African-descended males in multiple cities, one of which is Loíza. Loíza is also utilizing its history and majority Afro-Latino population to bring more tourists to the area.

“As a community, as Puerto Ricans, we need to galvanize as much support as we can use,” Colón said. “We have to do that with a sense of the assets we already have rather than focus on liability. We need to do that with a sense of hope.”

The Progreso Latino Fund is also looking to invest in sustainable initiatives for Puerto Rico, such as wind-resistant solar electric kits for hospitals and health care centers.

Hoping to raise $30,000 for a solar-powered kit for an emergency health clinic in Naranjito, Puerto Rico, the Fund launched its 2018 Naranjito Matching Gift Challenge. Through the challenge, the Fund will match gifts up to $15,000 to fundraise for the project. Attendees of the event received envelopes to donate to the initiative.

“I feel really lucky to be a witness to all of this,” said Mendez. “Collective impact needs collective dollars, to support and address the needs of the Latino community in the region.”

Mendez also discussed the Progreso Latino Fund’s philanthropic model, which pools and invests all individual donations. Profits from the investment are then diverted to support the work of nonprofit and other community organizations. Mendez noted that through this structure, all people are able to “be involved in philanthropy,” because even small donations have the “possibility of having great impact.”

“A lot of people still assume that you need to have a lot of wealth accumulated before you become a philanthropist,” Mendez said. “But a fund like the Progreso Latino Fund exists and makes it easy.”

In her presentation, Fuentes highlighted the resiliency of the people in her town despite the devastation from Maria.

She said they were trapped on all sides by water for three days with no aid and had no electricity for three months, similar to other cities around the island. She said that Loíza is supplementing reconstruction itself with little help from the Puerto Rican government. They are facing $123 million in debt this year.

“I always tell the people in my town, Maria was a Category 5,” she said. “But we are Category 10.”

The New Haven Lawn Club was founded in 1891.

Ruiyan Wang |

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.