“I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of the Puerto Rican residents we helped. In a senior facility with 240 elderly and disabled individuals, there were no complaints when we arrived, only thanks and warm smiles.”
Alexandria, Virginia – October, 2020
My name is Barbara Banaszynski and I’m the Senior Vice President of Program Operations for Volunteers of America’s national office. I’ve been with the organization for almost 27 years and came here because I wanted to help people. Nothing in my years of work totally prepared me for what I experienced in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
On Sept. 2017, a second disastrous hurricane hit Puerto Rico. It was the second punch by a hurricane and it was deadly. Volunteers of America has had programs and affordable housing on the island for the past 15 years and, following Maria, we launched a relief effort—Project Esperanza.
VOA staff from around the country—the affiliates, national office and national services—took turns going to Puerto Rico to help citizens in need by organizing and distributing water and other supplies donated by generous supporters. To this day, our work continues.
I am a “cradle Catholic” and most of my education has been in Christian settings. I particularly remember three special days: All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The first of these, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, is celebrated in Puerto Rico and is usually a raucous day of celebration and fun. Following the hurricanes, the revelry was very subdued. On All Saints Day (Nov. 1), a day meant to celebrate and honor all of those saints known and unknown, I was in the presence of many of those unknown and forgotten by most.
I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of the Puerto Rican residents we helped. In a senior facility with 240 elderly and disabled individuals, there were no complaints when we arrived, only thanks and warm smiles. They endured more than 42 days with little water and only sporadic lighting in corridors. Their resiliency and strength and grace are qualities I’ve rarely seen.
In following days, individuals arrived from Volunteers of America health care facilities in Ohio, Colorado, Minnesota, Minnesota and our national office in Virginia. They were just as awestruck as I was by what they witnessed. Such unbelievable devastation and suffering and yet the people were so grateful for our help and so uplifting. As we passed All Souls Day (Nov. 2) on Puerto Rico, I prayed for the dearly departed from my life; however, this experience and these holy days will never be quite the same for me after my experience in Puerto Rico.
I continue to return regularly to the island and continue to help. Just as Volunteers of America is committed to serving the vulnerable and the frail, I too have made a commitment to be there alongside my co-workers to assist.