Students Rally SLU Community for Puerto Rico Relief

10/18/2017

When Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated the island of Puerto Rico, a pair of Saint Louis University students took it personally and rallied their SLU community to support relief efforts underway in the U.S. territory. Juniors Sara Vendrell-Gonzalez and Anjali Patel organized an impromptu fundraiser on  Saturday, Oct. 3, at the local Puerto Rican restaurant, Mi Caribe, which netted over $3,000 to support those recovering on the island.

SLU students Puerto Rico fundraiser

(From left) SLU juniors Sara Vendrell-Gonzalez, Anjali Patel, Valeriya Udovenko and Bryce Fults at the fundraiser Vendrell-Gonzalez and Patel organized to benefit relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Submitted photo

“I think of this as an act of love towards people in need and as a way to show that together we can all still make a difference, regardless of how many people are against you,” Vendrell-Gonzalez said.

Vendrell-Gonzalez, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, said that while her own family is safe, they and others across the island are struggling to rebuild, not only from the storms’ impacts but also in the face of the island’s debt crisis, which is expected to grow worse as it incurs costs while rebuilding. Vendrell-Gonzalez recalled tracking the storms and her growing worries for her family, friends, and home.

“I remember talking to my mom the night before the hurricane and her telling me, ‘Well, Sara – this is it. I do not know if I will be able to talk to you in less than a week from now – so you behave and concentrate on your school work. I will call you as soon as I am able to. ¡Te quiero con locura!’” Vendrell-Gonzalez said. The Spanish phrases translates to, “I love you madly!

While she took her mother’s command seriously, studying for a quiz on biomaterials and her work as a biomedical engineering student at Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology, her heart was in San Juan.

“After the hurricane hit and I could see everything that happened back home, I was heartbroken,” Vendrell-Gonzalez explained. “The amount of people that I know up to this very day that still do not have a roof, water, or food is too sad to think about. However, it was very hopeful to see so many Puerto Ricans living elsewhere stepping up to the task to help our island rise again.”

When her best friend from Puerto Rico, Jose Diego Toro organized “Students with Puerto Rico,” a student group made up of students across the nation, to help with hurricane relief efforts, Vendrell-Gonzalez became the SLU representative for the organization. The next step was calling on the SLU community for help.

Patel, also a biomedical engineering student, was drawn to the cause through her friendship with Vendrell-Gonzalez and with two other floor mates who also hailed from the American Caribbean island. Patel had met Vendrell-Gonzalez’s family when they visited St. Louis just days before Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico.

“I think that was part of what made it even more personal,” Patel said, “knowing some of my best friend’s family was in Puerto Rico without help. It’s kind of hard to wrap your head around the situation. You hear about it, you see the pictures, but you can’t truly imagine what it’s like to be in that situation.”

The Jesuit emphasis on helping others was also on the organizers’ minds as they planned the event.

“SLU really emphasizes serving the community and this means more than just the St. Louis community that we are directly surrounded by,” Patel said. “My Jesuit education has made me see that even as a single individual, I have the ability to make an impact in many different ways and this fundraiser is just one example.”

In under a week, Patel and Vendrell-Gonzalez had talked with Mi Caribe, set up a Facebook page, made a flyer and had spread the word through the SLU community. Freshman Sean McGinty, a student in the John Cook School of Business, volunteered to DJ.  A crowd of about 300 participated in the Oct. 3 benefit, which generated its aid funds through a cover charge, donations, and Mi Caribe’s donation of 50 percent of the night’s bar total. The night’s proceeds went to Students with Puerto Rico and to a friend of Vendrell-Gonzalez’s who lost her roof to the storm.

I think of this as an act of love towards people in need and as a way to show that together we can all still make a difference, regardless of how many people are against you.”

SLU junior Sara Vendrell-Gonzalez

The Oct. 3 event is not the end of Patel and  Vendrell-Gonzalez’s efforts to help those recovering from the storms either. Vendrell-Gonzalez is currently seeking participants to table with her in the Busch Student Center. The goal of the tabling would be to collect donations and needed items for those on the island in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Society of St. Louis.

“Things in Puerto Rico are very bad, worse than people might think,” Vendrell-Gonzalez said.

Patel also stressed the need for a continued commitment by the SLU community to helping with Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts.

“The SLU community should learn that despite our distance from Puerto Rico, we still have the ability to help,” she said. “Also, I think it is important to realize that natural disasters can occur anywhere with little to no warning. Since we can’t always anticipate these situations and their severity, we need to be willing to help.”


For ways to help Puerto Rico, visit the Puerto Rico Society of St. Louis, United for Puerto Rico, and the Ricky Martin Foundation’s YouCaring fund page.

University News staff writer Nish Gorczyca originally reported on the benefit on Oct. 5, 2017.

Story by Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications