“I can honestly say I wasn’t prepared for this. I never thought a storm could knock a country back to the Stone Age.”
The story of Hurricane Maria through the eyes of U.S. Facilities, Inc. Project Manager Joe Rivera, who was transferred from the Camden Kroc Center to the Kroc Center in Puerto Rico just months before the storm.
With water rushing in first on one side of the house and then the other, Joe Rivera, his wife Lauren and their two children sat on a mattress in the hallway fearful of the worst.
“My wife thought we were going to die,” Rivera said.
Flash back a few months and the situation was much different for the Riveras. Joe – an Assistant Project Manager for U.S. Facilities at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden had just accepted a promotion and transfer. Joe was now going to be the Project Manager at the Kroc Center in Guayama, Puerto Rico.
The job was certain to have its challenges. There was work to be done on the pool and a preventative maintenance plan needed to be created for a largely outdoor Kroc Center. Rivera had a step by step plan to get the Kroc Center up to a standard that he, U.S. Facilities and The Salvation Army could be proud of.
Hurricane Maria had other plans.
On September 4, 2017 Hurricane Irma – a category five storm - threatened to do major damage to the Island. The storm killed 12 people, left thousands without homes and nearly a million people without power. Yet, many of the people of Puerto Rico were thankful, praising God that the eye of the storm had passed just north of the island.
“After Norma everyone was like ‘Thank the Lord, he saved us,” Rivera said. “There was a feeling we were good for the rest of the year.”
That hope quickly faded when news broke of another massive storm heading Puerto Rico’s way. On September 20, Hurricane Maria made its landfall, proving to be one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history.
The storm knocked out power for 100% of the island and caused sewage-ridden flood waters as high as 30 feet. Economic forecasters predict Puerto Rico suffered as much as $94 billion in damages. The official death toll is in the 60s, but analysis suggests the hurricane may have resulted in more than 1,000 fatalities. The storm also left thousands of families homeless, while destroying some communities completely.
Joe and his family were at his father’s house when the storm made landfall. The property is described by Joe as a typical Island house with shutters and screens. When the storm hit, the house held firm, but no one was sure just how long that would be the case. Screens blew off, water rushed in, and the power went off, leaving the Riveras to fear for the worst.
“The only thing I can equate it to is a 747 plane landing on my dad’s house,” said Rivera. “It sounded like the worst possible thing I could imagine.”
The storm subsided between 5-6 am on Sept 21, about 12 hours after most of the Island lost power. Upon exiting his father’s house, Rivera recalled a scene that resembled more of an apocalyptic movie than real life.
“All the people started coming out with machetes and started cleaning themselves up,” he said. “We had no running water, no light and no cell phone service. My dad’s house is on a hill and with all the trees down I could see 50 miles down the Island. There was no light except one small light in the distance. Even then, I didn’t realize what impact the storm had on the Island. Now that I look back at it it’s eerie.”
The Rivera’s experience the next several weeks was that of great struggle and frustration. There was no communication outside the Island, leaving their friends and family left in the dark about whether or not they had survived.
“I can honestly say I wasn’t prepared for this,” Rivera said. “I never thought a storm could knock a country back to the Stone Age.”
Rivera recalled stories of waiting more than 10 hours for just $20 of gas at one of the few gas stations able to serve the Island. There were trips to the airport, to not only try and get his family back to Philadelphia, but also to do something as basic as charging a cell phone. There was fighting in the streets for basic supplies like food and water that we so often take for granted.
And then there was the Kroc Center.
Following the storm, the building had no working air conditioning, doors were blown off, filters soaking wet, and the pools were completely black. Rivera recalled pulling two-foot frogs out of the pool. Despite the building’s condition, The Salvation Army insisted on staying open so that it they could serve as an emergency food source for a population in great need.
“I give Major credit, because in a matter of days he had 10 volunteers in the kitchen and was feeding 1,500 people,” he said.
That meant the first priority was getting the air condition in the café back working so that the volunteers would be able to keep serving those in need. In order to expedite the process, U.S. Facilities dipped into the Camden staff, sending Camden Kroc Center Project Manager Jim Ashby and electrician specialist Josh Sanutti to Puerto Rico for a couple of weeks.
Once they got to the Kroc Center, the challenges were apparent. The trio worked for a week and a half and got all the AC units running - fabricating tin and aluminum to create replacement doors for the units.
Over the course of the next six months, Rivera tackled projects such as re-plastering the pools and installing new doors, all while dealing with constant electric surges. To help speed up the repairs, Joe made two trips to Philadelphia, each time returning with supplies currently unavailable to them in Puerto Rico.
While the Island has seen great recovery, thousands remain without power. As of April, The Salvation Army estimated that it had assisted more than 7.6 million people in Puerto Rico since the hurricanes struck last year.
Rivera has seen the heart of the people and the consistent progress with the rebuild. One of the Kroc Center’s most inspiring moments came on Easter Sunday when the chapel re-opened its doors for service for the first time since the storm.
“I’d say we are 75-80% of where we want to be to be fully operational,” Rivera said back in March. “Church is being held, the pools and gym are open, and kids are using musical instruments. It’s great for people to be able to come and take their minds off of things for a couple of hours.”
The work will continue for Rivera, and U.S. Facilities continues to provide support to make sure the Guayama Kroc Center can serve an appreciative community. The work certainly wasn’t what he expected when he initially accepted to promotion last year, but you won’t hear Joe complain about doing what is needed to help the people of Puerto Rico.
“At times it almost hasn’t felt real,” he said. “I can’t feel bad for myself because there are people who lost everything. There are people who still don’t have power and a lot of people lost their jobs. When you look at it that way, I have a lot to be thankful for.”
Tiffany Phillips Maxwell has always had a passion for dance and has recently taken a love to fashion design.
At The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, Phillips-Maxwell has found a way to display both of those passions. Phillips-Maxwell, employed at the Kroc Center as a dance instructor, will be showing off some of her designs at the 3rd Annual Garbage Bag Gala presented by U.S. Facilities, Inc. on Thursday, May 17 in Town Plaza.
Past Garbage Bag Galas have seen designers create stunning looks out of unconventional materials, such as newspaper, trash bags, and toilet paper. Models show off these looks up and down the runway in front of an amazed audience. This year, the Kroc Center is thrilled to have the Honorable Mayor Dana L. Redd as emcee.
After hearing about how fun and original the event is, Tiffany knew she wanted to get involved.
“I decided to do it because I heard such wonderful things about the event,” she said. “After seeing the pictures of previous years I knew I had to do it!”
Phillips-Maxwell has been designing for the past three years, but her love of dance stretches back much farther.
“I’ve always worked in the arts field,” Phillips-Maxwell said. “Even when I was in High School I volunteered in dance classes and drama. It’s been a good opportunity to work here to input my wisdom onto young kids since dance was one of my majors.”
Tiffany first came to the Kroc Center as a summer counselor, doing dance instruction on a part-time basis. Her classes quickly drew a following and she was brought on full-time to teach popular classes including Hip Hop and Afro Dance.
Tiffany said she enjoys getting feedback about her classes and considers it a great character builder to help her “become a better me”. In that same spirit she is looking forward to finding out how her fashion debut is received.
Growing up the daughter of parents who were never afforded the opportunity to gain a prominent education, Camden resident Yeilyne Rodriguez constantly strives to make her parents proud.
Yeilyne’s mother and father were born and raised in the Dominican Republic. Her mother made it to eighth grade and father only through second grade – not by choice, but by necessity.
“They had to go straight to work to help the family,” Rodriguez said. “For me it’s hard, but it’s kind of what is motivating me to move forward and build something for myself – not just for me, but family. I also have younger siblings and I want to give them an example and of course make my mother proud.”
On Thursday Yeilyne will be presented with the Chancellor’s Award for Student Civic Engagement at Rutgers University-Camden. The award recognizes her dedication and many contributions to The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden. It also represents the latest development in the young life of a blossoming student.
“I was shocked,” Rodriguez said of finding out she was receiving the award. “I let everyone know, my family, friends at school and advisors. I was proud of myself. When I told my mom she was proud of me. She was shocked because growing up I was always shy and she has seen me grow up into an amazing person who is opening up more.”
Even though shyness was still a trait she carried, Rodriguez wasn’t afraid to take a chance and apply for a marketing internship at the Kroc Center. She knew she wanted to learn more than a classroom setting could provide.
“Yeilyne came to us ready for a challenge and she knew it,” Kroc Center Resource Development Manager Benjamin Ovadia said. “She was reserved, soft-spoken and not sure what an internship here would mean or what direction it would go. I asked her to think about getting involved here and what projects she would want to pursue. From the time she got back to me a few days later, she was ready to rock. We have seen her grow from a young woman in a shell to a hard-working project manager keeping her own pace and getting project after project complete.”
In the beginning of her volunteer service, Yeilyne would attend events as an ambassador and capture photos while engaging participants. She later undertook a lengthy project to clean and organize the Kroc Center’s photo database.
“She was always willing to take on an extra assignment on the spot,” Ovadia said, citing her distributing books at the Member & Friends Christmas Tree Lighting and ringing the Red Kettle bell at City Hall for their annual Tree Lighting.
Rodriguez engaged in at least a dozen community-building meetings/tours and provided feedback and summary information from those meetings. In her early time with the Kroc Center, she also was the first individual on our entire team to reach her Online Red Kettle fundraising goal.
In the current semester, Rodriguez has completed her four project assignments for course credit: membership data analysis, Swim Program infographic, planning, funding and implementation of her own event and Rutgers-approved poster for Garbage Bag Gala Fashion Show). Future projects are being planned.
“We have seen Yeilyne grow as a member of our team and appreciate her continued dedication and willingness to serve as we strive to “Do the Most Good” in Camden and beyond,” Ovadia said.
The highlight of this semester was Rodriguez’s “first generation” college student event that she planned from top to bottom, including event planning and fundraising. The event itself was powerful, smooth and really very touching.
“When I planned the event it was inspiring to me,” said Rodriguez, who resides in Cramer Hill. “I was fundraising to reserve the room and it made me feel good about myself. I realized getting people to come to your event is hard. I got people to come and they were inspired by the speakers and that inspired me.”
Rodriguez is in her third year at Rutgers-Camden and hopes to graduate within the next two years. She believes the experience she continues to gain as an intern will be beneficial wherever life’s next journey takes her.
“The things I did here have been so touching,” Rodriguez said. “I never expected it to go so well. I thought it would go smooth, but it went way beyond my expectations. This experience has been amazing. I learned more than I ever would have inside the classroom.”
"Take Your Child to Work Day" was a perfect opportunity for us to present the Red Kettle Family Award to Albert Harvey and grandson Zachary Burns. This dynamic duo volunteered during the latest Red Kettle Campaign almost every weekday evening. If they look a bit familiar to you, they were regularly found dressed up as Santa Claus and Elf at the Cherry Hill Mall. Thank you for your service!
Jose J. Figueroa, 37, has been a member of The Salvation Army Kroc Center in Camden since 2015. He’s pretty laser focused on the treadmill and strength training upstairs in Fitness. And with good reason; he’s a runner. But not just any runner – his marathon pace is a 6 minute, 45 second mile! That’s the average pace across 26.2 miles.
Seven years ago, Figueroa started running with the goal of losing weight. In 2014, he took on the challenge of a 100-mile ultramarathon. “My family signed me up because they believed in me.” They were right to believe as Jose finished the race in 27:25:33 (yes, he ran for more than a full day). As the race continued, Jose thought back to his favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Says Figueroa: “When I ran the 100 miles all I had was Him.” And the running keeps him moving. Just this past October, he earned 1st Place in the Atlantic City marathon for ages 30-39 (and the front page of the newspaper).
Jose is now most excited about his next challenge, the Boston Marathon, where he will be running on April 15 of this year. It’s an achievement just to get in. “You have to qualify. I had to earn it,” says Jose. Reflecting on the upcoming race, Figueroa says, “Running brings me closer to God. That’s my running partner.”
So why train at the Kroc Center in Camden? For Jose it’s that the Kroc Center is a “family facility”. And truly, it’s a family affair (on average, the Figueroa family visits the Center 3 times per week). Wife and high school sweetheart Glenda does many fitness classes and often works out on the treadmill next to Jose. Nathaniel, 16, is fonder of basketball in the gym and getting a paycheck too, he’s recently become a Kroc employee. Twins Giani and Aaron, 11, both like to swim in the pools. Giani also likes the dance classes whereas Aaron’s favorites have been away camp Tecumseh and the Sixers clinic. The Figueroa family also loves the Kroc Center staff and interacting with other members. “I love giving tips. The biggest one: be consistent and watch your nutrition. It’s 80% in the kitchen, 20% in the gym.”
Jose Figueroa is part of our Salvation Army Kroc Center family and we eagerly await stories of the upcoming Boston Marathon. “I look at the running as life. Keep moving forward. I run to show my kids: never give up.”
THE SALVATION ARMY
RAY & JOAN KROC CORPS COMMUNITY CENTER
To donate clothing, furniture, household items or a non-antique car, please call 1-800-SA-TRUCK (1-800-728-7825) or visit satruck.org to schedule a pick up or drop off