Today marks six months since Hurricane Maria. Out of the seven times I visited, two were humanitarian trips. It’s crazy to think how I visited so often in the beginning, trying to highlight all the incredible things the island had to offer. From the pristine nature to the street festivals, I saw Puerto Rico at its best. After September 20th, 2017, I saw it at its worst. With destruction all over the news, I couldn’t stop thinking about the shattered island. I had to get down there. The problem with doing aid work is that you can’t just show up and say, “Hey! I’m here to help!” You must be involved with some kind of organization or non-profit. Volunteer work gets messy if structure goes out the window. I called everyone I knew with ties to Puerto Rico. I put up IG stories saying if anyone knew of anyone, PLEASE put us in contact. I even thought about trying to charter a plane there, but thankfully a friend of mine was one step ahead of me. I was way out of my league by that point.
One day in September, I received a DM from a woman in Miami saying she had just dropped off donations at a warehouse. All she gave me was an address, a name and a number. I called it that very day and in early October, I met with the founding partners of a coalition made up of Alison Thompson from Third Wave Volunteers, Michael Capponi from Global Empowerment Mission and Bethenny Frankel from B Strong (and amazing reality TV). I’m forever grateful for complete strangers and fine human beings willing to work together for the greater good. From sun up to way past sundown, this group met at a 100,000 square foot warehouse daily and managed logistics and made deals with donors and operated forklifts and packed first aid kits and wrapped palette after palette and attended fundraisers and ah. My heart swells when I think back on that crazy October. After years of traveling to unbelievable places around the globe, I fully realize how important it is to give back to those locations that have given me so much – memories, friends, work, adventure, a touch of home.
A few days before I had to depart Miami, we got a call that a someone had chartered a plane to Puerto Rico for a small group. The government had contracted all the cargo planes and commercial jets weren’t operating on normal schedules. With the money raised from his restaurant’s fundraiser in Denver, Juan Padro used the proceeds — more than $100,000 — to distribute aid on the island. We packed the plane with food, water filters and solar lights as Alison Thompson, world-renowned Humanitarian Extraordinaire, led the way. Read Juan’s raw and honest account of that period in time here.
I had never seen Puerto Rico in this state. As we pulled out of the airport, there were no swaying palm trees. Many were without palms entirely, only a bare stump to remain as a sign of calmer times. Hoards of people waited in desperation to purchase food from corner stores that began to operate again. Lines of people clogged the airport in an effort to get off the island. A maze of cars descended upon gas stations with fuel. There were far fewer locals with carefree grins along their faces, their lives having been turned upside down by Hurricane Irma and Maria.
During my first day on the island, I met a five-year-old boy named Eliam. He lived in a crippling house on Crash Boat Beach near Aguadilla, an area that experienced 215 mph winds during the hurricane. Eliam was very shy, and when I spoke to him in Spanish, he answered me in English. I kept on, asking him about his home and how he was feeling after the hurricane. He told me his family cannot cook, cannot bathe, cannot drink, and cannot turn on any lights. Nobody had been to check on them in weeks. I handed him a water filter and a solar light with a heavy heart, showing him the light’s different settings of low, high and emergency. He walked away from me that evening with a glimmer of hope and a lifted spirit. I can’t adequately explain to you how it felt when an elderly woman looked me in the eyes with pure elation after she was handed a light source and water filter. She’d seen zero aid until we showed up. Children were ecstatic because they could see through the darkness again. When the most simplistic features and basic needs become luxuries, humanity is stripped of egos, of status, of prejudice..
My very first trip of 2018 was back to Puerto Rico with my favorite human in the travel biz, Brian Kelly, affectionately known as ‘The Points Guy.’ He, alongside See Puerto Rico, organized an amazing trip full of beach clean ups, house repairs, children hospital visits and a fun Three King’s Day celebration (one of the island’s biggest holidays) in Juana Diaz.
What a time to be alive. I loved everything about this trip, and even though we hardly slept, I think we did a good job of raising morale and showing the world that San Juan and other areas of the island are absolutely ready for tourism. This island has made a HUGE comeback since September.
If you’ve skimmed through this article, at least remember this: Don’t shy away from visiting Puerto Rico. I repeat: The island is ready for tourism! Some parts of the island still have rebuilding to do, but the locals are beyond resilient and won’t be defined by any storm.
Get ready to shop in its charming streets…
Bask in the warm sand…
Stay in its stunning hotels…
And take in its beautiful views 🙂