• Volunteer

Volunteer Opportunities in Puerto Rico: Disaster Relief, Building & More

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By Rachel Roderick
Guest Writer
Volunteer abroad opportunities in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has long been a destination-of-choice for American vacationers who want the best the Caribbean has to offer without the hassle of a passport. Sadly, when Hurricane Maria tore through the island in September 2017, much of the area was completely decimated. Hotels flooded, large sections of forest were uprooted, and many homes were reduced to rubble. Hospitals went dark, and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.

Once the terrifying 155 mph winds passed, Puerto Rico set about the business of rebuilding. Today, major cities like San Juan have nearly recovered, and few scars remain from Maria’s devastation. However, outside of these areas, there is still work to be done.

Coffee farms, an important part of the Puerto Rican economy, are in the process of being coaxed back to life. Local fishermen are still struggling to navigate washed out roads. Most heartbreaking of all, there are families still living in tents and under tarps while they wait for homes to be built.

If you are looking for an opportunity to travel, and you are passionate about giving back to communities in need, there has never been a better time to volunteer abroad in Puerto Rico. The island depends on tourism, which makes up 10 percent of its economy. A decrease in visitors has deepened and extended the impact of Hurricane Maria. Any money you bring to local businesses offers a crucial infusion of cash that will help Puerto Rico get back on track. These are the details you need to get started with volunteering in Puerto Rican communities.

Volunteer In Puerto Rico With International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)

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International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is a leader in volunteering and interning abroad. Since it was founded in 2007, more than 100,000 participants have been placed in projects around the world. IVHQ operates programs in more than 40 countries, all carefully designed with local members of the community to ensure maximum impact.

As a result of its strong record for safety, innovation, and responsibility, IVHQ is one of the most trusted volunteer abroad organizations operating today. In fact, when major companies like Microsoft and Salesforce want to arrange corporate volunteer trips, they partner with IVHQ. So do respected educational institutions like the University of Michigan, UCLA, Berkeley, the University of Florida, and Northwestern University.

In response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction, IVHQ designed and redesigned programs to ensure that skilled volunteers could easily connect with the Puerto Rican communities where they are needed most. No matter which option you choose, when you volunteer in Puerto Rico, your primary responsibility will be to serve the area’s immediate needs. As the recovery effort progresses, each project is adapted, so that eventually volunteers will be focused on contributing to the island’s long-term success.

Choose from one of the following projects devoted to the health and well-being of Puerto Rico’s communities:

Community Development

This project is designed to address the unique challenges of individual neighborhoods, so you could find yourself immersed in a wide variety of activities that change from day to day. Some participants have partnered with neighborhood organizations and community centers to deliver services to local citizens. Others have been involved in park restoration, planting and cultivation of urban gardens, or improving classrooms and schools to maximize opportunities for education. You don’t need any specific skills or experience to join this project, though you can be sure that any skills you do offer will be put to use for the benefit of the community.

Environmental Sustainability

Implementing sustainability initiatives has always been a priority in Puerto Rico, but in the wake of Hurricane Maria, there is a critical need for attention to the environment. The island is working to adapt to challenges presented by warmer climates and rising sea levels – not to mention the extreme weather that comes along with those changes. Through this program, you have opportunities to get hands-on experience in conservation. Some of the current projects include restoration of coastlines, waterways, and habitats essential for local wildlife.

NGO Support

As you can imagine, nonprofits from around the world are focused on the rebuilding effort in Puerto Rico. That means you have an opportunity to gain meaningful work experience while giving back to the island’s communities. Through this program, you will be matched with an organization in need of your skills. Since these groups tend to operate on a very tight budget, your services will offer invaluable relief for overextended staff members.

Depending on your interests, you may be assigned to provide general administrative support. In addition, these organizations often need help with fundraising, IT, website development, research, marketing, translation, and more. In a short period, you could gain a long list of skills to add to your resume.

Youth Support

It’s a difficult time for Puerto Rico’s youth – particularly those who lost their homes in the storm. Their families have been disrupted and in many cases, their education has been put on hold. When you participate in the youth support program, you will work out of a daycare center, after-school program, or community center to provide assistance to the island’s young people. Depending on the placement, you may offer mentoring, tutoring, or coaching in sports – and sometimes, all of the above.

All projects are based in the capital city of San Juan, where you will stay in a dormitory-style hostel. Programs begin on the second and fourth Monday of each month, and they operate year-round. IVHQ prides itself on making volunteer abroad projects accessible to everyone, so you can count on affordable program fees that start at just $590. Depending on your availability, you can choose from opportunities ranging from one to twelve weeks.

Other Organizations Operating Programs In Puerto Rico

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IVHQ is a world leader in high-quality, affordable volunteer abroad projects, but of course, it isn’t the only organization operating programs in Puerto Rico. These are some of the other opportunities available to dedicated volunteers:

All Hands and Hearts

The 2004 tsunami that took more than 250,000 lives was a turning point for the founders of All Hands and Hearts. They wanted to find a better way to harness the energy of the global volunteer community to provide immediate relief in disaster zones. They created an organization that “arrives early and stays late”, delivering services to individuals impacted by natural disasters. All Hands and Hearts has brought more than 56,000 volunteers to 18 countries to participate in 106 programs. By its count, the organization has touched nearly 1.2 million lives and returned more than 109,000 children to school.

The Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief project launched in January of 2018, and it has already succeeded in putting 2,533 global volunteers to work removing debris, rebuilding homes, managing mold contamination, repairing roofs, and renovating community facilities. A shocking 1,244 projects have been completed in just over a year, but there is still a lot left to do.

If you choose this program, you don’t have to come with construction expertise. All training is provided to you free of charge. Current assignments are focused on returning people to their homes, so you can expect to work on roof repair, housing renovation, and rebuilding of community infrastructure.

Habitat for Humanity

Habitat for Humanity is a well-known and widely respected organization that operates in communities around the world. Founded in 1976, it connects volunteers with people in need of housing, whether due to poverty, natural disaster, or other tragedy. Since it was founded, Habitat has placed more than 4 million volunteers and constructed, preserved, or rehabilitated more than 800,000 homes. Based on those figures, Habitat for Humanity is the clear leader when it comes to nonprofit builders.

Habitat for Humanity isn’t new to Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Maria gave its work fresh urgency. There are opportunities for individuals, families, groups, and youth to contribute to building and repairing homes for Puerto Rican residents. All of the work is completed free of charge to families, and you don’t need any experience to participate. Keep in mind that unlike traditional volunteer abroad organizations, Habitat is typically unable to offer lodging and other in-country support.

Global Works

Summer is an ideal time for students to gain real-world experience, and Global Works specializes in creating those opportunities. In its 29-year history, this organization has placed more than 12,500 volunteers in community service, language immersion, and cultural exchange programs around the globe.

Global Works founders have a special love for the island of Puerto Rico. After all, it was the site of the organization’s very first service project in 1990. At that time, participants contributed to rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. Today, Global Works volunteers are back to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The project is designed for students in grades 9 – 12, and it lasts for a full eight days.

During the time in-country, students contribute 30 hours to service projects in Villa del Río, a small community outside of San Juan. The work is typically related to rebuilding homes damaged by the hurricane. When the workday is done, participants are taken on guided tours of the must-see sites, in addition to spending quality time in cultural exchange activities.

Greenheart Travel

Global citizens are those that feel at home, no matter where in the world life takes them. Greenheart Travel is committed to creating opportunities for everyone to become a global citizen. Its award-winning programs are carefully designed with an eco-friendly focus, and the organization offers funding for alumni who develop their own sustainable initiatives.

When you participate in Greenheart’s Sustainable Forestry and Permaculture Project in Puerto Rico, you gain hands-on experience with preserving existing rainforests and promoting reforestation of areas cleared for agricultural use. This program takes place on a 1,000-acre reserve in the island’s southern mountains, where volunteers are planting and caring for thousands of new native and exotic hardwood trees.

Your work may include data collection that is needed for conservation research, or you could spend the day caring for seedlings, saps, and mature trees, as well as the reserve grounds and trails. No matter how you spend your days, you can be sure you are making a much-needed contribution to the area’s long-term environmental health.

Globe Aware

As one of the few non-profit volunteer abroad organizations, Globe Aware’s mission is two-fold. It aims to develop programs that simultaneously promote cultural awareness and support sustainability. When Globe Aware defines cultural awareness, it isn’t about encouraging members of other cultures to change their lifestyles. Instead, it is about encouraging participants to recognize and appreciate the unique beauty – and distinctive challenges – that other cultures face.

In terms of sustainability, Globe Aware wants its programs to support skill development, so that communities can eventually pursue their goals without relying on outside assistance. The Globe Aware Puerto Rico Post Maria Rebuild project aims to do just that for communities still recovering from the massive storm.

Programs run for eight days (seven nights), with specific start dates that have already been scheduled. You will be located in Yauco, a city about 80 miles from San Juan. Approximately 1,300 homes are in need of roof repair or replacement so that families can move back in. Globe Aware has committed to completing at least 100 homes by the end of the year. If you don’t have construction or roofing experience, you can still volunteer. The project is overseen by licensed engineers, and you will receive the instruction and training necessary to get the job done.

When the workday is complete, join fellow volunteers in exploring the island’s natural beauty. Wander among buildings notable for their colonial architecture or relax on some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches.

Ready To Volunteer In Puerto Rico?

Once you’ve decided which program is best for you, it’s time to start planning your volunteer experience. Consider talking with former volunteers so you’ll know how best to plan and what to expect during your experience – do your research, and if you travel smart, a life-changing experience awaits!