Editor's note: The following interview was first published on the personal blog of Elizabeth Angeles. The original version can be found here.
There have been various efforts to support Puerto Rican evacuees in the States, particularly in New York. I chatted with Lilah Mejia, a fellow Boricua and Lower East Side native, who has been working at the NYC Hurricane Service Center, on behalf of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), since the center opened in October.
Q: What is New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) and what is your role in the organization?
NYDIS is a 501(c)(3) faith based federation of service providers and charitable organizations that work in partnership to provide disaster readiness, response, and recovery services to New York City. Our mission is to inspire, connect and provide resources for New York City faith communities serving in disaster to create an urban environment of social justice for all. My role at NYDIS is Coordinator of the Evacuee Service Center.
Q: Before we dive into Hurricane Maria Support, what kind of activities does NYDIS do in general and how did you get involved with the organization?
NYDIS is a well established organization that has been around since 2003. NYDIS is a leader in the disaster field, known to address all cycles of a disaster from mitigation education, preparedness training, planning, recovery and advocacy programs. However after Hurricane Sandy, NYDIS was a powerhouse in assisting hundreds of families through the Unmet Needs Roundtable. I became aware of the great work NYDIS does during my work as the Coordinator of the local long term recover group, LESREADY for GOLES.
Q: What has NYDIS been doing to support Puerto Ricans since Hurricane Maria?
NYDIS has been set up in the Service Center located at the Julia De Burgos Center in East Harlem. We are doing exit interviews and following up with families that come through the center. NYDIS has spent well into the millions to support this effort, including providing a clothing mart so that families are able to get brand new jackets, clothing and household goods. NYDIS has also been assisting with the provision of food, metrocards and medical referrals for families. Most recently, NYDIS provided Santaland, an event to distribute Christmas toys to all of the families that came through the center with children. The efforts continue and I have been truly amazed.
Q: What has been your most memorable moment since your efforts with Hurricane Maria support so far?
There are so many…however, one moment that stands out the most to me was during Santaland. I broke down crying when the DJ started playing Mark Anthony’s Preciosa. I saw a whole bunch of our families get up and start singing while waving the Puerto Rican flag. To see the resilience of our people during these times – still happy enough to experience Christmas in the city with us – brought it all together for me. I was amazed to see my boss, Peter Gudaitis, help make sure that this day was extra special for our families. We made sure our children got presents and that families ate a traditional Puerto Rican meal: arroz con gandules y pernil. Everyone got a haircut. Girls got their nails done and their hair braided or cut. We had a face painter. We distributed jackets, gloves, hats and a scarves, and for some of our families, we were able to provide transportation back to where they were staying. It touched my heart deeply to see all the love and support from all our partners. I am still very high from that moment.
Q: Are there ways to get involved with the current efforts at NYDIS? If so, what skills is NYDIS looking for?
We are currently looking for volunteers to help assist with distributing clothes at our clothing mart as well with exit interviews. For people looking to do exit interviews specifically, we ask they have some experience with either case management or disaster work. We will also conduct a background check. If anyone is interested, please email at: email@example.com.
Q: Are there any upcoming/new initiatives NYDIS will continue to be involved with to support Puerto Rico?
There are some projects under wraps that I am not at liberty to speak about as of yet. However, we will continue to support all our families coming in from the U.S. Virgin islands and Puerto Rico.
Q: In what ways do you think people can best support Puerto Ricans right now?
I think the most important thing is to encourage our Governor to sign off on the FEMA bill so that New York can be a host state*. We need to continue to help groups that are supporting efforts locally on the island since there is still a need for support on the island. We also need to come together as a city and fully embrace all our new families who are now calling New York City home.
Q: Is there anything else you wish to to share or highlight?
The service center has decided to be open three days instead of six. I think now more than ever it’s important for us to follow up with all 2,000 families and see where they are now. As individuals, it’s important to be more active with the current status of what is going on in Puerto Rico, educating ourselves on the island’s history and the future of the island.
Lilah recommends following Defend Puerto Rico and WhyNotCare. She also gave a shout out to #OurPowerPRnyc, which hosted a rally at Union Square on Friday December 29th, to mark the 100th day that Puerto Rico has been in the dark.