How Wauconda school is helping Puerto Rico recover from hurricane
With ties to Puerto Rico running deep for some of its teachers and students, Wauconda Grade School has started a relief effort for the island as people there struggle to recover from Hurricane Maria's devastation.
Teachers Anayeli Mendoza and Nancy Herrera returned last week from Puerto Rico, paying their own way to deliver care packages containing food, toiletries and other items donated by the Wauconda students and their families. They also brought generators and other goods to help a colleague's family there.
Their effort is mirrored to a degree at many schools across the suburbs that are raising money and collecting supplies to aid the ravaged island.
Herrera, a Puerto Rico native who went to her hometown of Guaynabo on the island's north end and helped to remove debris from a neighborhood where her grandmother's home was destroyed, said the trip was an emotional roller coaster. She experienced hugs and joy from people upon her delivery of the donated necessities, while also seeing the daily struggles.
"I learned quickly that water and ice are virtually impossible to find. ... In fact, I drove around for six days with the hope of finding ice and I had no luck," Herrera said. "I was able to find water to purchase in two out of 10 stores. ... Even when collecting rain water, it has to be boiled if someone wants to drink it."
Wauconda Grade School rallied behind Puerto Rico soon after Hurricane Maria slammed the country Sept. 20. Herrera and some students are natives of Puerto Rico, as is another teacher, Sandra Figueroa. Figueroa's sister, Maria, is a teacher in Ponce on Puerto Rico's southern coast. That led third-grade instructor Glenda Juarez to have her classroom "adopt" the Ponce children and write them letters of encouragement and donate the items for the care packages.
Saying there are no guarantees anything shipped from the United States will reach those in need in Puerto Rico, Figueroa appreciated Mendoza's and Herrera's willingness to deliver the care packages to her sister's second-grade students and to carry generators, solar lamps, batteries, granola bars and more to her family.
"I feel very blessed," said Figueroa, 52, of Grayslake, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico about 18 years ago. "My gosh, I have so many good friends."
Figueroa plans to visit her family in Puerto Rico in December and do whatever she can to assist in the rebuilding effort. She also hopes to hold another drive at Wauconda Grade School to collect flashlights, solar lamps, batteries and radios that she'd bring to Puerto Rico.
Despite the lack of electricity and clean drinking water in much of Puerto Rico, Mendoza said she found the residents are trying to get back to life as it was before. She visited a restaurant that had limited water and no power, but diners made the most of it by using plastic cutlery and candles.
"People want to live a normal life," said Mendoza, 30, of Des Plaines, who's taught at Wauconda Grade School for seven years. "So, they are still going out. They'll go to places that don't have power or don't have water, and they'll support businesses. I mean, the little that they have, it's like they're willing to give."
Wauconda Grade School's bond with Puerto Rico is about to become stronger. Principal Debra Monroe said a few children from Puerto Rico are being enrolled at the school as a result of their families fleeing to Wauconda.
Figueroa said she's ready to help the new arrivals. She said she can direct them to the Puerto Rican Society in Waukegan -- an organization that offers resources and socialization -- or other places that might benefit them.
"I'm looking forward to meeting the parents and helping in any way," she said.