While their peers are on the beach, the ski slopes or just sleeping late this Spring Break, a group of OU students and sponsors will travel to Puerto Rico to continue cleanup and rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Maria.
About a dozen Sooners Without Borders members will travel to the municipality of Toa Baja where water damage from the 2017 hurricane had a devastating impact. Many homes, flooded by high waters, have yet to be repaired and made habitable. Many of the affected residents are elderly and are physically unable to make the repairs.
The students, lead by faculty adviser Jim Chamberlain and OU Engineering staff member Lisa Morales, will repair and paint houses for parishioners in the Santa Maria Magdalena Episcopal church.
The trip follows a similar effort in the spring of 2018 where students traveled to the sprawling Pine Ridge reservation on the South Dakota border with Nebraska to make repairs on homes there. There, they built bunk beds, constructed outhouses and chopped firewood.
“It felt like we were in a Third World country,” said Maddie Benson, an OU junior from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is studying chemical engineering and serves as secretary of the OU chapter of Sooners Without Borders, formerly named Engineers Without Borders.
She said the trip made the students aware of how much many take for granted each day.
“I think it’s really important to do trips like this,” Benson said. “When you’re in a university environment, it’s easy to get caught up in all that’s going on here but you need to also give something back.”
Chloe Jackson, a Norman sophomore studying civil engineering, also made the South Dakota trip. She said what the Lakota people lack in possessions and modern conveniences, they make up with their culture and traditions.
“We learned so much from them,” Jackson said, adding they also made lasting friendships.
Morales, the engineering college’s executive director for diversity and inclusion, accompanied the students to Pine Ridge as the staff adviser for Sooners Without Borders. She said the glimpse of life the students saw on the reservations was important.
“It’s pretty limited the education we often get on Native Americans so this was eye opening,” she said. “Being in South Dakota, being in the United States and seeing the poverty first hand and not knowing before you got there.”
Each evening, elders from the Lakota community would come and talk to the students, giving them a new perspective on Native American affairs. She saw changes in student perspective just in the short time they were there.
“When we were going there, everyone talks about what they want to do, feeling really good about doing something and then questioning if they are really helping,” she said. “Then in the end, coming back and telling their family and friends what they did and the impact they can have and the overwhelming problems they confronted.”
In Puerto Rico, the students will work under the director of the parish rector, Fr. Juan Carlos Restrepa and another parish member.
The idea for the trip came from Chamberlain, co-director and a staff engineer of the OU WaTER Center. He has taken
college engineering students on service trips to El Salvador, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Dominican Republic and wanted to build outreach in the Americas.
“Each student has a different experience of course, but it is always positive,” Chamberlain said. “Some students see poverty for the first time. In Ethiopia, a student saw houses with dirt floors where the farm animals bedded down inside on the first floor in the colder, rainy months in order to keep the family warm.”
“They often are touched by the resiliency of the poor, how they struggle to get by with so little.”
He said other students begin to see how their college major can make a difference in the quality of life of disadvantaged peoples. Other students discover that they can live for a time without the conveniences of dependable electricity and a steady water supply.
“They learn to wash their own clothes by hand and to sleep under a mosquito net without air conditioning,” he said. “These things give them a kind of ‘survival confidence’ in themselves. At this stage in their lives, a little extra self-confidence goes a long way.”
Students are seeking public help to fund the trip. Tax-deductible donations can be directed to the OU Foundation. Online gifts can be made at link.ou.edu.SWB.