Hurricanes María and Irma devastated Puerto Rico. They also hit hard at Hostos Community College, an educational and cultural hub for the Latino community in the South Bronx.
Thanks to the CUNY Service Corps Puerto Rico initiative, a partnership with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative,” five Hostos students—Gabriela Castillo, Alex Gutiérrez, Mya Hiraldo, Karla Ignacio, and Teresa Rivera—traveled to Puerto Rico in July and August and brought hope to the island.
Throughout the summer, more than 650 CUNY and SUNY students, as well as skilled labor volunteers, traveled to island communities to volunteer their time. Over the course of five deployments, they logged in nearly 41,000 hours to clean, restore, and rebuild homes. The goal to renovate 150 homes was far exceeded, with a total of 178 homes restored over 10 weeks.
Working with nonprofit organizations NECHAMA, Heart 9/11, and All Hands and Hearts, the students learned first-hand what being a global citizen is all about.
Mya Hiraldo has strong ties to Puerto Rico; her father currently lives there, and her mother grew up on the island. The 35-year-old Hostos Forensic Accounting major actually lost touch of her family for nine days after Hurricane María hit.
Jumping at the chance to help victims of the hurricanes and the earthquake in Central Mexico, Hiraldo first volunteered on Sept. 30, 2017, at a collection drive hosted by the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization, numerous elected officials and other community leaders. Ironically, it was the first day she heard from her family by phone in Puerto Rico. With that sense of relief came an overwhelming feeling she needed to do more. Hiraldo then volunteered for CUNY Service Corps after learning about the program at Hostos.
“It was hard to see all the damaged homes, as well as all the nature that was so devastated,” she said. “My father didn’t have a roof, and there were other houses that were simply abandoned. It was not the island that I remembered.”
Scrapping floors, walls and ceilings for repair and painting, Hiraldo said her hands were sore by the end of most days. But, that did not stop her and the other volunteers from working long hours in brutal conditions. Undeterred and more inspired than ever, Hiraldo even served as the unofficial interpreter for the nonprofit organization NECHAMA.
“I felt proud to be able to help the team leaders from NECHAMA and others communicate with the residents. Not all of the volunteers spoke Spanish, so it was nice to help bridge that gap. It was great to be able to share my culture with others, while I helped people at the same time.”
During her 10 days of volunteer work, Hiraldo forged a strong bond with residents in and around the coastal towns of Guaynabo and Cataño in Vietnam, Puerto Rico. The mother of three was thrilled to assist the children of that region, helping to direct funds and collect food for a local after school program in her sparse free time.
“I plan to go back with my family,” Hiraldo said. “My oldest son is 15, and he really wants to volunteer. It was an incredibly powerful experience. I want them to know what it feels like to really help other people in need. The fact that we are Puerto Rican makes it extra-special.”
On July 23 and 24, current Hostos President David Gómez, former Hostos President and current Queens College President Félix Matos Rodríguez, and SUNY’s University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez traveled to Puerto Rico with Gov. Cuomo to work alongside students and other volunteers. 
President Gómez was born in New York City, but his family’s roots are firmly planted in Yabucoa, considered Hurricane María’s “ground zero.” Having visited the island many times before, it was his first chance to see the devastation up close. Working for two days in Toa Baja and Orocovis, he did heavy demolition and repair work, while leading by example.
“It was simultaneously inspiring and infuriating to see American citizens still living this way one year later,” President Gómez said. “To see the strength and resiliency of the people first-hand was incredible, as was the coordination of everyone in the relief effort. It was awe-inspiring to see our students, some who have very little, give so much of themselves. They will tell you, however, they got more than they gave. I have never been more proud to serve as the President of Hostos Community College.”
Interim CUNY Chancellor Vita C. Rabinowitz also lauded the volunteer spirit exhibited by everyone who poured themselves into the CUNY Service Corps.
“The University is extremely proud of the 200 CUNY students, faculty and chaperones who gave their time, their hard work and their hearts to help the people of Puerto Rico with Governor Cuomo's NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative,” she said. “This was truly a labor of love and service that was not only exceptionally educational and meaningful for these student volunteers, but also served to strengthen the already special connection CUNY has with the island.”
Alex Gutiérrez, 27, and Karla Ignacio, 21, formed a special kinship working with NECHAMA in Cataño. While Gutiérrez’s parents are from the island, Ignacio’s family hails from the Dominican Republic. It was their Latino roots that inspired the two Liberal Arts majors and brought them together.
Gutiérrez learned about the opportunity from Hostos professor Ana López. He developed a strong interest in the region while taking her Latin American and Caribbean Studies course. The Vice President of the Puerto Rican Student Organization at Hostos, Gutiérrez was humbled by the opportunity to give back to the island that has had such a huge impact on him.
After receiving an email blast from Hostos’ Student Leadership Academy about the opportunity with CUNY Corps, Ignacio decided to help give back. While in the San Juan region, she fixed damage roofs and made other repairs.
“I just really wanted to help. I have a lot of friends from Puerto Rico and really identify with that culture,” Ignacio said.
Gutiérrez and Ignacio shared their stories on the NBC 4 program, VISIONES with reporter Lynda Baquero on Sept. 1. Joining them was Hostos Director of Presidential Strategic Initiatives, Soldanela Rivera. The group discussed their experiences, as well as the College’s ongoing “Hostos Helping” program, which has offered information and services since last year. Access the segment here.
Not every student who volunteered in Puerto Rico had a personal connection to the island. Gabriela Castillo simply volunteered out of a sense of civic responsibility.
“Reading about the devastation left in Puerto Rico after the hurricane made me realize how fortunate I have been to never experience the aftermath of a natural disaster,” the 23-year-old Dental Hygiene major said. “I felt privileged in a sense. It was these feelings that really pushed me to be part of a real, physical effort to rebuild Puerto Rico this summer.”
Aside from their backgrounds, many students did not have construction know-how, either. Castillo had admittedly never held a screwdriver before this experience, but she and others were trained well by skilled craftsmen.
“I actually got comfortable working with a Sawzall and other tools,” Castillo said. “The organization and training I witnessed was pretty incredible. It’s amazing how attached you can become to a certain project when it means a lot to you.”
Volunteering to help rebuild Puerto Rico initiative was also an easy decision for recent Hostos graduate Teresa Rivera. Now enrolled as a freshman at The City College of New York and pursuing a teaching degree, the 24-year-old has always been passionate about volunteerism and was especially motivated to give back to the island her grandparents called home before coming to the U.S. mainland.
“I enrolled in the program because I am passionate about community activism and mi isla (my island),” she explained. “Volunteering at donation drives was not enough, and I have been trying to get on the ground since María hit. I have a lot of experience in organizing community members and service work, so I did not hesitate to apply.”
Working on roofs with All Hands and Hearts in Barranquitas, Rivera also had no previous construction skills. She was so impressed by the experience and the training, she is currently seeking more opportunities to work with the organization again in other places around the globe.
Rivera was the last Hostos volunteer to return to her home in the Bronx in late August, staying an extra few days to be with family and to explore her family’s roots even more.
“We have always been active supporting the island,” Rivera said. “I felt like I was personally impacted by the situation there and needed to go. It was incredibly empowering.”
The Hostos students were truly part of something special, as their cohort was five of only 200 CUNY students selected from a pool of 2,700 who applied. They grew immensely as individuals and forged strong ties with those they met.
Pointing to a silver charm on his chest forged in the shape of an “A” made by one of the residents in Puerto Rico, Gutiérrez said it is something he will cherish forever.
“The history in Puerto Rico is important; the people there are important. I don’t want it to be washed away and forgotten. To be able to help someone is an incredibly powerful thing, because it’s a win-win situation for all involved.”
“Hostos Helping,” a website launched by Hostos, lists international, national, and local government and non-governmental organizations and coalitions working towards the recovery of Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Caribbean. Visit to learn more.