By Travis Duerksen
Update: December 20 marked the three-month anniversary of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico. In those three months, recovery efforts have been slow, with many people still without power, adequate shelter, or proper medical care. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, PhD, recently returned from Puerto Rico on an assessment trip sponsored by Mennonite Health Services (MHS) and in cooperation with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). Click here to read more about her experiences and impressions.
NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Education Agency) Academia Menonita Betania, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, a Mennonite Education Agency school, and service location for Mennonite Mission Network volunteers, has incurred significant damages by Hurricane Maria.
Not the first hurricane to make landfall on Puerto Rico in 2017, but by far the most destructive, Maria hit the commonwealth on Sept. 20. In the days and weeks that have followed, information has trickled out from Puerto Rico, the slowness stemming from massive electrical outages and damage to transportation and communication infrastructure. Many regions continue to not have access to power, fresh food, or reliable water sources.
Academia Menonita Betania serves children from pre-kindergarten to 10th grade and has worked with Mennonite Mission Network, hosting volunteers with their SOOP and Mennonite Voluntary Service programs.
"We were thrilled to have a volunteer sign up in August to serve in Aibonito this year [with MVS]," said Lizzy Diaz, director of MVS. The volunteer was scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico the day after Hurricane Maria landed, but remained home due to a proactively canceled flight, which MVS plans to reschedule.
Multiple SOOP volunteers are scheduled to serve in the Aibonito community at the beginning of next year, following service recommendations from partners in the community. "Genuine hospitality is a gift that [SOOP volunteers] have been given by our brothers and sisters in Aibonito," said Arloa Bontrager, director of SOOP. "I hope we can find ways to return that gift in the days ahead."
On Sept. 27, Academia Menonita Betania posted photos and a video to their Facebook page, detailing some of the damage to the buildings and property. "Many classrooms received water," Professor Luis Yavier Velez Soto, the school's director, described on the video. He shared that some classrooms, although flooded, can still be used structurally, while others cannot.
The photos detail buildings that exhibit a range of damage: tin roofing sheets twisted among tree limbs, water puddles beneath desks and chairs, and classrooms that open up to the sky, the entire roof above peeled away. Velez Soto described entering the auditorium, one of the buildings that lost its roof. "When you go in there, you just feel a lot of sadness," said Velez Soto, "because we know there's a lot of work that is lost ... instruments of the children ... it's all destroyed."
Throughout the video, Velez Soto noted the extensiveness of the hurricane damage, but also reminded viewers of the new possibilities ahead for the school. "We're here, we continue being Betania, and we know that with God we'll be able to move forward," he said. "Don't stop praying for us."
"Betania has been a constant partner sharing with us a deep commitment to Mennonite education and to sharing the gospel of Jesus," said Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency. "We must trust in God that the spirit of the Puerto Rican people, in partnership with brothers and sisters in the States, will overcome this great tragedy."
If you wish to join Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Education Agency in supporting the reconstruction efforts at Academia Menonita Betania, please click "Give to Academia Menonita Betania," or send a check payable to MEA at 3145 Benham Ave., Suite 2, Elkhart, Indiana 46517 with "Betania" in the memo line.