Blog: Coming Full Circle with Puerto Rico

Coming Full Circle with Puerto Rico

- by Jan Buerge

I watch all news of nature’s disasters with both an amazement of the immense power of our natural world and a sense of dread for the people and places in the direct path of such fury. Tornadoes. Floods. Forest Fires. Hurricanes. The “natural disaster” events out of our control that forever change lives. The destruction and loss and also the resilience and determination of peoples and places.

Partly born from my growing up in the midst of tornado events; partly my own experiences of early-years’ volunteering in disaster areas - through these eyes I watched Hurricane Maria bear down on tiny Puerto Rico. Yes, the hurricane was also hitting many other islands and potentially headed towards our mainland where other hurricanes had already destroyed so much. But tiny Puerto Rico, an island where the ability to move quickly or to leave is so limited for so many, holds particular personal connections for me from over the decades.

It’s the mid-40’s and my parents have recently married and then, as travel allows, first my mother and later my father join other Mennonite volunteers in the central highlands area of Puerto Rico to provide health care services, youth educational and recreational programs and sustainable agricultural projects. Aibonito and La Plata and the lush, tropical areas where natural beauty abounds but health care and development are desperately needed. A small hospital and clinics are established which later grow into a network of hospitals that continue to serve in PR. The call to serve others was strong and they responded. 

Jan's parents in Puerto Rico in the 1940's volunteers Mennonite Church 
It’s the mid-70’s and Lonnie and I are recently married and we so-wisely quit our jobs to become vagabond social workers volunteers in a van helping Mennonite Disaster Service give assistance after natural disasters. First in Atlanta after a tornado, then to the gulf coast after a hurricane, then to Guatemala after an earthquake. Assessing. Connecting aid. Cleaning up. Patching houses. Re-building. The call to serve others (well, ok, also an adventure) was strong and we responded.
Jan and Lonnie with Mennonite Disaster Service in 1975 and 1976
It’s 2015 and Lonnie and I are celebrating 40 years of marriage by traveling to Puerto Rico to visit Aibonito and the area where my parents lived and worked so many years before. A place of breath-taking natural beauty and lovely, welcoming people who remember the years my parents were there and are proud of the economic growth and health developments that have continued. I stand in the places my parents lived and worked and sit in the place my mother sat above the green valley of La Plata. The stories we hear of service  - by SO many others over the years - touch us.

Ruth and Jan sitting in the same spot above La Plata Puerto Rico Aibonito area 
It’s 2017 and Hurricane Maria has devastated Puerto Rico. I wait and watch for news and know that there will be much work to be done. Slowly the news comes in and I reach for reliable sources. Assessments are being done and Mennonite volunteers and aid will be sent to help re-build. The call to serve others is great, but I won’t be there. But little things can add up to big things and I can sell socks. And I can tell a story.