On Thursday, February 1, 2018, the Vincentian Solidarity visited the Vincentian sponsored Colegio de la Señora de la Medalla Milagrosa in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Fr. Marek Janowski, S.J., and I travelled together to Ponce for the visit. On site Fr. Stan Szczepanik, C.M. and the pastor, Fr. Socrates Laupe, C.M., greeted us at the door of the parish house. We then walked together across the street to the school principal office, Sra. Luz Marie Santiago, a tall, delightful woman with a warm maternal presence. Two months prior I had spoke to her at length about the school and the project of Ancillae-Assumpta Academy, Wyncote, PA, to help the needy students.
The principal welcomed us into her office with a smile and firm handshake. I then presented her with the card, given to me by the third graders of Ancillae-Assumpta. She thanked me on behalf of the children and parents. Now seated at her desk, Luz Marie went on to explain what happened during Hurricane Maria. The following is a summary of her account,
The hurricane hit the island of Puerto Rico on September 20 of 2017. It was the most powerful hurricane since Hurricane Felipe, 1928. All the trees were completely stripped of leaves, roofs were torn off houses, rain water filled the streets, rivers overflowed, and power lines went down. Three weeks after the storm 100% of the island was without electricity. According to some figures, 500,000 inhabitants subsequently left Puerto Rico for the United States, especially, Florida.
Since last year, the school lost 24 students from its pre-K – 12th grade program. The school now numbers 386 pupils. However, economic uncertainties remain for the tuition driven, working class and middle class school. Often both parents work in order to pay the monthly $165 tuition bill. On average 25% of the children receive financial assistance. Since the hurricane, many a father and mother have lost their jobs. They have asked either to postpone payment of their monthly tuition or for direct economic assistance. Fortunately, some parishioners have volunteered to pay the tuition for the students most affected by the hurricane.
The administrators of the Miraculous Medal responded with the means at hand to help those affected by the hurricane. The day following the hurricane, Sra. Odette Pacheco Torres called her kitchen staff back to work. According to Sra. Pacheco Torres, the food in the kitchen could be used to feed the hungry. Without refrigeration it would begin to spoil unless it were cooked and eaten. Of all the kitchens in the neighborhood, the school kitchen alone had a gas stove whereas the others were electric and therefore unusable. For two weeks, the kitchen-crew cooked its store of food, packing it in aluminum containers for deliver to the pupils who were at home without access to electricity. The school bus driver used the school’s bus to distribute food to the children, who were happy to receive a hot meal.
After hearing of this touching testimony of service in the face of pressing need, Sra. Luz Marie took us to the cafeteria. There we met the head of the cafeteria, Sra. Odette Pacheco Torres, a woman of medium height, and friendly smile. She explained to us that from this clean and well-equipped dining room and kitchen, the staff prepared and then distributed food to the students after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
Having passed through the cafeteria and standing outside, Fr. Stan pointed to a sheet metal roof at the corner of the school that had been partially torn away. It still needed to be repaired. Standing together school yard, Sra. Luz Marie recalled seeing Fr. Stan the day after the hurricane on the bell tower with a hammer in hand. He was checking on the condition of the structure. He looked down across the street at Luz Marie and yelled to her, “we made it and we’re moving forward.” She recalled that the sight of Fr. Stan on the bellow tower gave her encouragement at a time of much grief.
The group, made up of Fr. Socrate, the pastor, the principal, Luz Marie, Fr. Stan, Fr. Marek and I, then went on to visit the third grade. Mr. Duran, a tall, husky gentleman of 35 years of age opened the door and invited us in. The class of 18 children sat attentive in a star configuration of three rows and in pairs of two. Sra. Luz Marie introduced us to the children. She held up the card with the photograph of the children of Ancillae-Assumpta Academy, Wyncote, PA, and explained that they sent a donation to help the needy families after the hurricane. The children remained silent throughout her introduction, all the while marveling at the group of visitors.
At the close of the visit, I invited the class to pray with me for the hurricane victims. Sra. Luz Marie presented a spontaneous prayer and then two third graders broke their silence and offered prayers of their own for those who were still suffering the effects of the September hurricane. To this day, 30% of Puerto Rico is without electricity. Businesses are operating at only 65% capacity. Further, I thank Ms. Maureen Rilling for initiating the contact with the Vincentian Solidarity Office, and her offer to help the Vincentian school in Ponce, P.R. The third grade teachers, staff and children of Ancillae-Assumpta Academy brought hope to the Colegio of Nuestra Señora de la Medalla Milgrosa. Thank you also to the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the religious women sponsors of Ancillae-Assumpta Academy.
After the visit, I offered the service of the Vincentian Solidarity Office to help the administration with a micro-project of $5,000. Vincentian provinces from around the world donate the funds for these micro-projects. Fr. Stan is presently working with the school on two possible options for a micro-project, (a) to help with tuition assistance for needy students; or (b) to help rebuild homes for two teachers. My visit confirmed that generous acts invite hope, yet much more needs to be done.
Executive Director of the VSO