Local women aid in Hurricane Maria relief effort

Fuller Center volunteers constructing a second floor addition on a home damaged by Hurricane Maria.

Lora Fahey (left), volunteer from Washington, D.C., and Terri Benson (right) of Rushford assist with roof installation on a second floor addition.

When the forces of nature destroy a community, it can take a long time to return to any semblance of normalcy. To do so requires a massive effort, often with countless volunteer efforts from strangers a world away. Earlier this year, a group of local women travelled with a Fuller Center Global Builders team to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to assist residents in the ongoing efforts of rebuilding after Hurricane Maria devastated communities in 2017.

Jolene Hartwick, Joyce Iverson, and Terri Benson were three members of an 18-person Fuller Center Global Builders team that journeyed to the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico in January.

The Fuller Center, though far from a household name, shares its beginnings with a kindred organization with a much more familiar name: Habitat for Humanity. Millard Fuller and his wife Linda were co-founders of Habitat, parting ways after some years to form the Fuller Center, which shares many of the same ideals while remaining true to the founder’s original vision.

After flying into San Juan, Puerto Rico, on January 24, the women enjoyed three days soaking in the rich history of the island, learning about the beautifully intertwined cultures that comprise the fabric of Puerto Rico.

Then it was off to Maunabo, Puerto Rico, a municipality in the southeast corner of the island. There the women, as members of a team, spent the bulk of their time in a barrio called Calzada, a community with just over 1,000 residents right on the Atlantic Ocean, to remedy the damage visited upon the island over a year prior.

When Hurricane Maria formed as a tropical wave in September 2017, she was the 13th storm with a name and the eighth consecutive hurricane of the very active hurricane season. Maria reached Category 5 status on September 18, striking Dominica, and weakening only slightly to a high-end Category 4 storm before making landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20.

The diminishing strength of the storm also caused the eye of the storm to triple in size, inflicting damage on a wider swath of the island. Strong winds, mudslides, and floodwaters wreaked havoc, levelling property and destroying the power grid, which caused a loss of power for up to six months in places, the greatest blackout in U.S. history.

As soon as news of Maria broke, Hartwick knew that she had to get to Puerto Rico. Between her full schedule of volunteering and coordinating trips with Habitat, and the fact that there were no teams going to the island during the 2018 hurricane season, the trip was delayed until the beginning of 2019. This proved to be was unfortunate timing, in that Hartwick had a cast removed from her broken arm just 12 hours before boarding the plane.

In addition to experienced builders Hartwick and Iverson, Terri Benson made her ‘maiden voyage’ with the crew. Having heard stories of previous excursions, Benson’s desire to help led her to realize that this was the trip on which to get her feet wet. “And she took to it like a duck to water,” said Iverson proudly. “You can tell she’s a farm girl,” concurred Hartwick. “She knows how to do stuff.”

The team of 18 divided up between five primary houses, all of which were in different stages of repair. Many of the homes in Puerto Rico are built of cement, including the roof, because the frame must be strong enough to withstand both hurricanes and termites. Homes that were not made of cement sustained the greatest damage, but the damaged even the sturdiest homes. So there was much for the team to learn regarding the different building needs and construction materials. “Taping and mudding sheet rock is definitely easier than smoothing cement,” Benson said firmly.

The region occupied by the Fuller Center Team needed more aid than other places on the island. “The northern part of the island, like San Juan, saw significant contributions,” explained Benson. “The smaller communities (like Calzada) were harder to reach.”

In some cases, legal technicalities prevented further assistance. “In some areas, people may be living on generational land, where ownership was never ‘properly’ documented, and they may or may not have a title to the property,” Hartwick said. “In which case FEMA can’t help them, Habitat can’t help them, but Fuller could work there. Each organization helps to fill a different pocket of need.”

The team was able to see progress but not necessarily completion of every project they worked on. “We wanted to be able to get as much done as we could while we were there,” affirmed Iverson, who joked that she did a lot of interior work, especially floors, “because I’m close to the floor!”

“Slow and steady wins,” agreed Benson. “It was a good learning experience because you have to go at their pace, which isn’t always your pace, and you will still see progress.”

The women had nothing but praise for the local people who are on the frontlines of fighting for their communities, particularly one woman named Milagros. “Millie left her own house, which had sustained significant damage, basically untouched in order to work on the community,” Benson explained. “She was so determined and so passionate that we were energized and inspired just watching her.”

Milagros prepared three meals a day for the volunteers, in addition to running whatever errands were needed. “To have a Millie in each community is invaluable,” stresses Hartwick. “She is their champion.”

On a volunteer project such as this, the highest quality equipment and supplies are not always available. While the team was working on site, some good Samaritans went to Home Depot and bought some necessary supplies, including some rather major purchases. “There are so many more good people in the world than you hear about,” declared Iverson. “Everyone is so generous.”

“The island has done miraculously well in terms of recovery. But there are some areas that are still hurting,” said Hartwick, who returned to the island with her children and grandchildren after the team had left. “The grandkids are always interested in what goes on, and this was a relatively easy trip to do with them.”

Hartwick plans to continue working in areas of need around the globe, and is still looking for one or two people to accompany her on a team to Armenia in May.

 “You get to see the true heart of a place when you’re immersed in a culture, especially the rural areas where we were,” Benson explained, describing how much she enjoyed the ability to see both the tourist destinations and the authentic neighborhoods where people actually live. “It was a very worthwhile experience, and yes, I would do it again. To see those before and afters…you really get a sense that you helped someone.”


I had the opportunity to meet the crew as they fixed my future mother in laws house. They are kind hearted and very professional. The enjoyed her cooking and tasted our cusine, coffee and anything that came there way lol we surely will miss them once they’re done. God bless them always.