If you’re like most Floridians, you spent a lot of time glued to the Doppler Radar on your TV sets and smartphones to keep up with the paths of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria from late August through early October.
And, following the devastation that Irma and Maria both wreaked upon the Caribbean, especially Maria’s march through the American territorial island of Puerto Rico, many of us felt compelled to do something to help, especially if we had friends or family hit by those storms.
One family who lives in Land O’Lakes, off Wesley Chapel Blvd., was particularly close to the situation. In fact, Ivelisse (she goes by “Ivy” here) Hernandez was in Puerto Rico when Irma hit there, returned to be with her daughter Ashley Rivera just before Irma hit here and went back to her native home, to help with Irma relief, three days before Maria devastated the power grid and so many lives in Puerto Rico.
In fact, the first time Ivy was able to get in touch with Ashley following Maria, all she could get through was an “SOS” message on Facebook. An ABC Action News TV crew was actually on hand when Ashley and Ivy were first able to speak with each other the next day — for ten minutes or less — and only because Ivy climbed a large hill in the decimated town of Canovanas in order to get enough cell phone “bars” to even make a phone call.
“I have been through hurricanes before, but I never saw anything like Maria,” Ivy recalls. “Away from the big cities, people there may not have power or working traffic lights for two years or more.”
In other words, Ivy says, it’s important for us, as fellow Americans, to keep Puerto Rico on our radar. “You can’t just think, ‘Well, I already donated some money or some food, so I did my part.’ The crisis in Puerto Rico is far from over.”
Ashley, a teacher at Denham Oaks Eelementary in Land O’Lakes, decided to do something more to help. She started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called “El Coqui Que Vive Aqui,” which means “The Frog that Lives Here.” El coqui is a small frog that is indigenous to Puerto Rico that has never been able to live anywhere else but on the island. “So, we are the coquis — the native Puerto Ricans — who live here (in Florida),” Ashley says.
The name might be hard to say, but what this small group of people — most of whom had never met before joining together — have accomplished in a very short period of time is truly amazing and inspiring.
“We didn’t know what we could do,” Ashley says. “We wanted to be there to help, but we couldn’t. We all just felt like we needed to do something. I started reaching out on Facebook saying ‘We’re doing this’ and people just started offering to help.”
Among those who have been helping, she says, are Life Church on Old Pasco Rd. and local businesses like Happy Cow Frozen Yogurt on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in Wesley Chapel (which held a fundraiser) and others, like the Palms Pharmacy in Tampa Palms (which donated gloves, masks, OTC medications and more. “They really opened up their hearts to help us,” Ashley says.) and Associated Construction Products in Lutz, which donated hundreds of buckets (see below). And, a company called Envolve Pharmacy Solutions has donated its cargo airplanes (which would normally cost thousands for each flight) to fly over to Puerto Rico, filled with the supplies collected by El Coqui volunteers. To date, four Envolve planes have flown more than 20,000 pounds of supplies over to the island, all of which have gotten into the hands of those who need them.
Ashley started by collecting the items Ivy said the people in Puerto Rico needed — including non-perishable food, toiletries and buckets to catch rain water, since bottled water is in such short supply. Ivy’s mother, Ashley’s grandmother, owns Premier Medical Services in Carolina, Puerto Rico, where she has organized dozens of volunteers — most of whom have no power or water themselves, but are still helping people who are even less fortunate — to make sure that the items that El Coqui volunteers collect actualy get into the hands of the people in need.
“My mom was able to develop a network of people she knows in many of the small towns in the mountainous areas away from the bigger cities, where nothing was getting through,” Ivy says. “We’re making sure we’re getting the supplies to those in the most need first.”
Ivy, who says that she had never seen anything like the island after Maria, says, “Imagine no land lines, no TV, entire families waiting in line for 12 hours for gas, no ice and no way to communicate. The one radio station on the island that had a signal was collapsing as it was helping people connect for the first time. I never thought I would hear that emergency signal on the radio used for a real emergency. We were in no way prepared for this.”
Among those helping El Coqui is U.S. Army Staff Sergeant and Calvary Scout Jason Maddy, one of a group of U.S. veterans who has self-deployed to Puerto Rico. “Jason was able to get our supplies into the mountains, many of which had no roads after Maria,” Ivy says.
Although many of the supplies are loaded in boxes, Associated Construction Products donated the buckets and, rather than ship them over empty, El Coqui volunteers have filled them with supplies and called them “Buckets of Love,” which anyone can pay to fill for just $20. “Some of the buckets have food, some have tools or personal hygiene items,” Ashley says. “Some people have given us money, but some people have donated medical supplies like adult diapers. They need everything there.”
Helping Here, Too
As a teacher, Ashley notes that schools across the Bay area have accepted thousands of children who have left Puerto Rico to live with aunts or uncles, “some of whom they had never met before. There is just so much emotional counseling that is needed, for kids and for older, sick people who waited weeks for flights to get here, too. They’re all traumatized.”
Ivy adds, “We have gotten so many messages on the El Coqui Facebook page from people who are literally crying, “Thank you so much for helping us. We thought everyone forgot about us here.”
Some local schools are even writing letters that El Coqui is shipping to the people of Puerto Rico to let them know someone cares. “Every bucket has a card and a letter in it,” says Ivy, who is going back to Puerto Rico on Christmas Day to literally play Santa Claus for these people. “My Christmas will be handing out toys to kids and families who have nothing. Even a $10 toy will be a big deal for these kids.”
I met several of El Coqui’s volunteers, all of whom have a connection to Puerto Rico, but none of whom knew each other before they got involved. They all have the same beautiful energy for heping that Ashley and Ivy do. All they need now are more donations and more voluteers to help get them to Puerto Rico.
If you’d like to help, search “El Coquî Que Vive Aqui” on Facebook and please tell Ashley and Ivy that we sent you!