Berkshires fundraiser will aid Puerto Rico victims of Hurricane Maria

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In the months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, people in Berkshire County have been working to help the residents of the U.S. territory survive and rebuild.

Tonight's Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fundraiser at Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams is one such event. It starts at 6 p.m. and will feature salsa dancing lessons and an art sale.

These efforts take different forms.

It's still a few weeks before Christmas, but Robert Cancel has been sending packages home from Pittsfield for more than a month. At first, they contained the basics: toiletries, clothing, some medical-related supplies. But more recently, he has filled them with toys, coloring books and Christmas lights.

"The kind with batteries," he said of the latter, "because everyone's still using generators. But it's Christmas, you've got to have cheer."

Cancel's family, as well as his girlfriend and her children, are back in Jayuya, Puerto Rico, a mountainous region located at the heart of the island, about 65 miles southwest of San Juan and 25 miles north of the southern metro area of Ponce. Once lush and dense with trees, mountainside homes and small businesses, mudslides prompted by Hurricane Maria about 21/2 months ago swept it all away.

Cancel, a chef by trade who once competed on the television show "El Gran Chef Goya," is visiting and working with his nephew, Jay Roman, of Roman's Restaurant and Cuchifritos on Tyler Street in Pittsfield. He arrived about a month after the hurricane hit.

Cancel's smartphone is filled with photos of before and after.

"Here," he said, showing a photo from the view of his mountaintop home. "Before, you couldn't see the town. Too many trees. Now, look — there's no vegetation at all. You can't hear the coqu ," he said, referring to the sounds of the native tree frogs that typically fill the evening.

The restaurant where Cancel used to work was flooded and remains closed. Small stores, bars and shops built on slopes were plowed down. Vehicles became entrenched in mud. Trees and other vegetation were washed in through windows and doors, bringing the outdoors into bedrooms and living rooms. And with a lack of power in the storm's wake, everything went black and quiet, with no clean running water or utility grid power.

Cancel was part of the initial emergency response effort, making checks on people, helping to clear roads, rounding up food and bottled water and delivering to those in the most need.

Today, with the help of generators, a good deal of surviving establishments, like grocery stores, banks, gas stations and a few businesses, are up and running. But many people are still out of work, because their places of employment are still in dire need of repairing or rebuilding. The children of Cancel's girlfriend have been home for months because their school remains closed. Cellphone service is still spotty, too.

"A lot of people are leaving," Cancel said. But many, he added, have no particular place to go. He said he considers himself lucky to still have a chance to work in the trade that he loves, but he also misses his love and his life back in Puerto Rico.

In the Berkshires, there are a number of people with Puerto Rican roots, with friends and family members still trying to make a living on the island, and many Berkshire people are still working to help by providing aid.

After months of collecting supplies and monetary donations, the Hopeseed Empowerment Cooperative of Manos Unidas, a bilingual community organizing collective based in Pittsfield, finally sent 15 boxes of supplies to families in the southern part of the island, including in Ponce, Pe uelas, Yauco and other municipalities. The group lauded resident Patti Loughlin for donating all the money needed to cover the shipping costs.

A few Hopeseed members have family in Puerto Rico who are still affected by the lack of power. They're looking into what other supplies are needed, including solar lighting.

"We're still going to keep sending things for the indefinite future," said Manos Unidas Director Anaelisa Jacobsen.

There are other efforts and planning happening in Berkshire County to help people who have lost their homes and livelihoods not only in Puerto Rico, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands and states like Florida and Texas that were also hit hard during the just-concluded hurricane season.

Local schools continue to hold fundraisers to donate money and purchase and ship supplies to affected areas.

The Berkshire Immigrant Center and local clergy are working to figure out how to relocate people who have been displaced by storms.

On Nov. 27, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for Puerto Rico, as the federal disaster recovery coordinator for continuing efforts to restore and rebuild infrastructure on the island. According to a FEMA release, areas of focus will include: providing affordable and accessible housing; engineering improved infrastructure; helping businesses recover through economic development; addressing public health concerns, including mental health; recovering and protecting remaining natural resources; and community planning and "capacity building" to help build resilience in municipalities and local governments.

Assets for Artists and The Studios at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams are offering a special opportunity for artists displaced from Puerto Rico to apply for a free residency for up to six weeks, with additional assistance for travel costs and meals. The application deadline is Dec. 18, and an application in English and Spanish can be found online at http://massmoca.org/event/studios.

Zorelly Cepeda isn't giving up either. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she now works for the education department at Mass MoCA.

She emailed The Eagle to help spread the word about a fundraising and awareness raising event she is holding tonight at Bright Ideas Brewing on the Mass MoCA campus. It will be a celebration of food, music and solidarity, she said.

"Since Hurricane Mar a, I have been trying to find ways to help the island," she writes. "It's not easy, but I know every little amount helps."


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