My personal highlight from the last workday of 2017 was an interview I had with Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, the executive director of archdiocesan Catholic Charities, about his most recent visit to Puerto Rico.
When I say his most recent visit, I speak from experience because Msgr. Sullivan and I were part of a small group from the archdiocese that traveled to Puerto Rico in late October, just over a month after Hurricane Maria battered the island Sept. 20. That one-day trip, led by Cardinal Dolan and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, was a chance for the Church of New York to express solidarity with the Church of Puerto Rico. The prelates gave their counterpart, Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves of San Juan, more than $800,000 from collections in parishes and donations from individuals. The archbishop led us on a whirlwind tour of various church properties in and around San Juan.
From Dec. 13 to 16, Msgr. Sullivan returned to Puerto Rico with a few Catholic Charities co-workers and others representing Comité Noviembre, a nonprofit organization comprised of some of the most venerable Puerto Rican organizations in the country.
This time, Msgr. Sullivan traveled far beyond San Juan to more rural areas that were in many cases hit harder by Hurricane Maria and have struggled to recover.
Of immediate interest to the New York priest and his Charities colleagues, including Talia Bernal Lockspeiser, the organization’s associate executive director, and Luz Tavarez-Salazar, its director of government and community relations, were the conditions at the 41 New York Foundling Head Start programs that operate on Puerto Rico.
Msgr. Sullivan told me about two Foundling Head Start centers in the municipality of Coamo, which were a good illustration of what he described “as a tale of two islands.” At one, the center sustained significant damage, including the destruction of its roof. Needless to say, without a roof, the Head Start center has been unable to reopen. Its teachers are still providing services, Msgr. Sullivan said, by going out into the community and giving their lessons to students at home on a rotating basis, perhaps for an hour each week.
At the Foundling Head Start center on the other side of Coamo, the facility was not damaged, but there was still no electricity three months after the storm. Kids are coming for a half-day program.
On that side of Coamo, the direct effects of Hurricane Maria are still apparent, as houses remain in ruins and telephone poles are down, with wires all over the street. In his office at the New York Catholic Center, Msgr. Sullivan offered an “eerie” reminder of his visit, when he recalled a mid-morning scene in which he could only see shadowy figures as he looked into the window of a corner store because of the lack of lighting.
A much happier moment came when Msgr. Sullivan and his staff were able to hand out 130 food packages to families at one of the Foundling Head Start centers, which happens to be named for Cardinal John O’Connor.
Msgr. Sullivan also reported that there are “clear signs of recovery on parts of the island, particularly in San Juan itself.” A major shopping mall there was filled with cars as people were finishing their Christmas shopping. In downtown San Juan, he saw a wedding reception taking place in an elegant building as he passed by.
He also spoke about a sense of resilience present in many of the New York Foundling employees he encountered. “We were providing services in this very difficult situation. I’m not sure I would have been as sanguine and upbeat as I found people,” Msgr. Sullivan said.
The resilience extends to others Msgr. Sullivan knows on Puerto Rico such as Father Enrique Camacho Monserrate, director of Caritas Puerto Rico, who told him about his concern that assistance and resources continue to arrive, especially for the more distant areas.
Msgr. Sullivan said one immediate need he sees is care for those providing services to others. Father Camacho would be a case in point. His rectory was destroyed by the hurricane, and he has been living with his family since then. “As of a couple of weeks ago,” Msgr. Sullivan said, “his parents still didn’t have electricity.”
Who will care for the caregivers? That is a pressing question in Puerto Rico, where the needs continue to run very deep and wide.