As our plane began to descend over Puerto Rico, I looked out my window at the destruction Hurricane Maria had wreaked on the island and was instantly brought to tears. What had these people gone through?
Trees were stripped of branches, limbs and leaves. Homes had either no roofs, or bright blue tarps tied down over uneven cinderblock walls. Fallen power lines blocked roads, and many roads were damaged. Streetlights were down, and driving anywhere was chaotic and time-consuming. Only 48 percent of the island had power, and even then it came and went.
All thoughts of hesitation about leaving my boys for five days left me as I took it all in, and I ached to bring love and relief to these people who had suffered so much, and were suffering still, with seemingly no end in sight.
Most everyone who volunteered with our group with Light Up Puerto Rico spoke Spanish. I was excited to be able to join my husband, Brad, on the island where he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but I felt very out of place.
How was I going to help people who couldn’t understand me? I couldn’t explain how to set up a water filter, charge a solar lantern or turn on a generator.
“What should I say when we call out?” I asked him as we immediately got to work, walking door to door down muggy streets littered with debris. Stray dogs wandered everywhere, looking shaggy and famished from lack of food and care. It was survival mode, and people took precedence.
“Estamos aqui para darte luz,” Brad said, and then he repeated the phrase over and over until I got it right.
"We are here to give you light."
Hours later, exhausted and yet energized from a day spent serving, we stumbled into our host’s house, overwhelmed and travel worn. “This is your house now,” she said. “Anything you need you let me know, mi amor.”
I fell to my knees on the tile floor of our bedroom that night, grateful for warm hospitality, a soft bed to sleep in, and a generator that kept the fans running. “Please help me overcome my insecurities,” I prayed. “Please help me look beyond myself and find those who need our help.”
The words from LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, quoting his father, came into my mind so clearly: “Forget yourself and go to work.” I closed my eyes and let the coqui sing me to sleep.
The next day we spent several hours in the early morning packing boxes and loading trucks. We drove down a street that looked like it had been hit particularly hard, and as soon as we opened the back of the truck and people saw the supplies, they came running. It took several hours to unload as we passed along box after box of water, hygiene kits, food, lights, clothes and baby supplies into eager hands. It was sweaty, stinky, satisfying work. After we finished, we were all ready for a good meal and a cold shower.
“There’s a house up here that needs a generator,” our security pointed out. “Would you want to make another stop?”
The honest answer was no — I was exhausted and needed water from the hours spent in the back of that baking truck bed lifting heavy boxes.
But the words “forget yourself and get to work” kept echoing in my mind, so we hopped in the car and drove to a home on the hill where an older couple was waiting for us.
I cannot adequately put into words what happened in that house that day, but it was an experience I will never forget. The couple we met had been married for more than 50 years. She was a tiny woman who had been taking care of her ailing husband suffering from a host of medical problems, including Parkinson’s disease.
She was in a wheelchair herself, and yet got up to welcome us and sit by her husband’s side of the bed as we explained the solar-powered generator we were setting up. It was proposed some of the men with us give her husband a priesthood blessing, and she gratefully accepted the offer.
“Can I tell you something?” she said in English. “Last night as I was praying, I said, ‘God, we need your help. Our generator is gas-powered and we can’t afford the $15 a day to keep it running, so we haven’t been able to use it. You need to do something. I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I know you can do something.’ And then today, you came with a solar-powered generator. You were the answer to my prayer.”
We all wept as she thanked us from the bottom of her heart for listening to the prompting to come up the hill and help. Truly “The Spirit of God like a fire was burning” in that weather-worn room, and as we said goodbye, I hugged her and bore my own testimony of God’s watchful care, hoping that what she didn't understand with her ears, she understood with her heart.
It became clear to me in that moment that our initiative to bring light to the people of Puerto Rico was not only physical, but spiritual as well. I didn’t know that I would be getting so much more in return, almost to the point where I felt it unfair how fulfilled I felt at the end of each day. And so it goes for all those who lose their lives in the service of others. I truly believe I have found a part of myself I would not have known existed were it not for this life-changing experience.
As I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family this week, I am thankful to have learned the true meaning of gratitude from people who, from the outside looking in, have little to be grateful for. And yet, they are. They are grateful to be alive another day, and to know that God has not forgotten them.