In December, Volunteers of America celebrated the groundbreaking of a new urban garden park in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, which had been hard-hit by Hurricane Maria.
Courtesy Volunteers of America In December, Volunteers of America celebrated the groundbreaking of a new urban garden park in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, which had been hard-hit by Hurricane Maria.

For nonprofits National Church Residences (NCR) and Volunteers of America (VOA), which already were dealing with cleanup in Texas and the Southeast from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Hurricane Maria took another toll on their seniors housing developments in Puerto Rico last September.

The properties didn’t sustain substantial damage, but they suffered from a lack of water and electricity, crucial for the seniors who reside in buildings with elevators. The two nonprofits worked together to assess the situation and take cash to the properties for fuel and other supplies.

While the properties eventually got power back, many others in the community, including the properties’ employees, weren’t as fortunate.

“We know that our communities and our seniors are far better off because of the housing that they had than the people in the community around them,” says Michelle Norris, executive vice president of external affairs and strategic initiatives at NCR. “The value of this affordable housing struck me [as to] how much more sustainable it is and how much it protected our residents. They took care of each other, and our staff took care of them. We don’t appreciate it as much until we see it in action.”

To help in the surrounding communities, VOA created Project Esperanza, "esperanza" being the Spanish word for "hope," to help relieve seniors and families on the island. As of mid-January, approximately 60 staff members from the national office and many of its affiliates had traveled to serve weeklong shifts to aid in the recovery. The teams included nurses and other trained professionals to help assess the needs of over 3,000 seniors households. In addition, almost $263,000 was raised and over 50,000 pounds of much-needed supplies were shipped to the island.

“Project Esperanza was a very uplifting effort for Volunteers of America in several ways,” says Pat Sheridan, executive vice president of housing at VOA. “It's always gratifying to see the expressions of hope and thankfulness on the faces of the people the team were able to reach out to, but it also gave the team members a real sense of purpose, and a feeling of being a part of a bigger community. The outpouring of offers of help, both physical and monetary, was amazing.”

In addition to these efforts, LeadingAge, a national organization for nonprofits providing housing, health care, and services for seniors, held a disaster-relief fundraiser for their members who had properties affected by the hurricanes as well as the wildfires in California.

From bake sales to small monetary donations to a matching contribution at a member organization, LeadingAge raised over $684,000.

Nancy Hooks, vice president of state partnerships at LeadingAge, was part of the delegation of nonprofits to visit Puerto Rico in December to deliver $150,000 in donations to properties operated by NCR, VOA, Retirement Housing Foundation, and Elderly Housing Development and Operations Corp.

The trip was deeply moving for Hooks, who says she saw a lot of commitment and resilience during her visit to several properties over three days.

“The housing community staff stepped up and really focused on what they needed to do, and not on themselves personally,” says Hooks, adding that the seniors she talked with didn’t complain at all and praised the staff. “There is an underlying story about how the staff and residents pulled together.”

Hooks adds that the money will be used in different ways by the communities.

“Some of the money was given to the staff to help get their lives back in order,” she says. “Others planned to use the donations for supplies in preparation for another possible event in the future.”

Also during the December visit, Hooks got to be part of VOA’s groundbreaking for a senior-centered urban garden park in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Maria. The first major development since the hurricane, the park provided a bright spot for residents. Power has since been restored in the city, and construction was about 85% complete as of early March.

Recovery will be ongoing on the island, especially for elderly residents.

Hooks says one of her biggest concerns for senior residents is the significant volume of professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who have left Puerto Rico permanently. “How will [the seniors] continue to have a quality of life if their primary sources of care and services leave?” she says.

VOA is also in the process of acquiring three existing seniors housing properties on the island and has been in contact with the Puerto Rico housing secretary’s office about opportunities to build additional seniors housing in repurposed, existing housing, says Sheridan.

To read our coverage of Hurricane Maria's devastation and the rebuild efforts underway in Puerto Rico, click here.