SALT LAKE CITY — Viviana Perez's Puerto Rico home remains dark when the sun goes down. But there is the distinctive, noisy hum of the generator that keeps her ventilator powered.
Stricken with multiple sclerosis and paralyzed lungs, she needs the sputtering gas-powered generator to keep her ventilator working, three months after Hurricane Maria cast her home and the island into darkness. In the light of day, the totems of her Catholic faith come clearly into view, including rosary beads that hang from a picture frame near her bedside.
She was among the many Puerto Ricans who welcomed Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson and photojournalist Spenser Heaps into their homes last week as they chronicled the efforts of Utah volunteers to give one-on-one help, the first of what will be a periodic series of stories, beginning today in the Deseret News.
"I’ve never gone into anything like this so blind," Amy told me after returning last week from covering the relief effort of the Utahns, some connected to Light Up Puerto Rico.
She's a veteran of five Olympic Games, traveling to far away places, including Sochi and Rio, and thrives at covering the unique stories that stretch far beyond competition — including those found in poverty-stricken neighborhoods far away from ski jumps or ice ovals.
She likes preparation. Yet for this trip, there was little time to prepare. The task would be to seek and find, and she and Spenser witnessed struggle and deprivation, but also joy and thankfulness. It was something Amy was well-positioned to understand.
She spent her teenage years in Alaska and knows what isolation feels like.
"In Alaska we felt like the lower 48 (states) didn’t really care about us. There’s a sense in Alaska the only reason the lower 48 wants you is strategic position and oil," she said. "I understand having people think one thing about you and having the reality be something else."
So into the homes they went, finding the young and old, the sick and the caregivers, and also the hopeful and helpful, those who work hard for their neighbor before helping themselves.
Reporters don't like to become part of the story. But in covering such intimate moments, at times they do become respectful participants of any situation, including in the home of Viviana Perez.
Volunteers provided her with solar-powered batteries that could run her generator for 10 hours if needed. It now provides the security she needs and extra power to not live in fear of dying if her generator shuts off. Her gratitude was expressed by asking those with her to offer a prayer.
So Spenser marked the moment respectfully from a corner of the room, while Amy, with head bowed, joined Light Up Puerto Rico volunteers Jorge M. Alvarado, his son, Jorge Daniel Alvarado, Rosa Denise Rivera and Luisito Rivera in prayer, thanking God for this day.
"I was really trying to get that shot and focus on composition and technical issues, and at the same time not be imposing myself. … It’s an intimate thing to be in a room when people are praying,” Spenser said.
Days later, he received an email from Viviana: "I’d like to thank you for taking the pictures so discreetly. Your visit and presence cheered us up," Spenser said she told him. "That was really important for me.”
For Amy, the whole trip had a spiritual component.
"What surprised me the most is how just by happenstance, or as I believe, through inspiration, we were led to these people," Amy said.
"I prayed for guidance about my stories. Ben (Davis) was praying for guidance to find people in need," Amy said.
So she was prepared after all. It's just not the kind of preparation you normally hear a skilled reporter like Amy Donaldson talk about.