About three months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, recovery efforts are slowly moving forward. A group of students at Young Scholars Charter School, led by a sixth-grader with ties to the country, has decided to chip in.
In the aftermath of the Category 5 hurricane that destroyed the power grid of the island and caused a humanitarian crisis, Melissa Landrau-Vega tried for more than 17 hours to reach her parents at her childhood home in Carolina, a city just southeast of San Juan.
She eventually connected with them on a landline and found out that they were safe and their home was intact. Most weren’t so lucky.
For days, Landrau-Vega watched news reports that confirmed just how lucky her parents were. The early images that came back from the island showed widespread devastation and the reports delivered the news that Puerto Ricans would be without power for an unknown number of days.
That’s when her 11-year-old daughter, Raquel, turned to her and said, “but what about the kids, Mommy?”
It wasn’t the first time Raquel Rodriguez-Landrau thought of the effects natural disasters have on children. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas, Raquel collected money at a back-to-school event and donated it to the Texas diaper bank.
“She’s been doing this type of collecting for about six years,” Landrau-Vega said. “Each year on her birthday, instead of collecting gifts, she collects things for different organizations, but because we’re Puerto Rican, after Maria she really wanted to help the kids.”
Raquel’s original idea was to send Halloween candy, but after she realized that some schools lost everything, she decided to send school supplies instead.
Over the next few months, she collected basic school supplies, such as pencils, notebooks and crayons, donated by parents and students at Young Scholars. On Tuesday, 10 students stayed after school to fill about 125 care packages that each contained a handwritten note in Spanish wishing the Puerto Rican student well.
The personal touch led to Raquel naming the initiative “Notes for Smiles.”
“I loved this idea immediately and I thought this was a great opportunity from multiple angles,” Levent Kaya, principal of Young Scholars, said. “This is part of our mission and we are a giving community, a caring community. We are thankful for everything we have in the U.S. and we are so happy to extend our help to others.”
When the packages reach Puerto Rico, they will be distributed by a foundation called A La Mano por Puerto Rico, or Hands for Puerto Rico. The foundation enlists the help of professional and national athletes to distribute aid packages to people in need. Puerto Rican national volleyball team member Shirley Ferrer will be handling the distribution of the Notes for Smiles packages.
“The beauty of this project is that it’s coming from children. And having notes of hope and friendship can let the children of Puerto Rico see and read that people are thinking about them,” Landrau-Vega said. “I’m so proud of her desire to give children something to smile about, something to feel positive about even if it’s just with a few school supplies. And just like the title of the project says, we hope the children can smile.”
The next hurdle for the project is raising money for shipping, which is expected to cost more than $200. Any individual interested in helping can do so by calling the Young Scholars Charter School at 237-9727.