SUNY Poly student on the ground in Puerto Rico helping with hurricane recovery
Hot and humid climates and roof repairs may not be what immediately spring to mind when one thinks of SUNY Poly MBA students hard at work, but for Lucas Martin, it’s just another opportunity to help others while expanding his global education.
He grew up Fayetteville, New York just outside of Syracuse, but in Summer 2018, the SUNY Poly MBA student found himself far away from his hometown as he worked to help recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, where many people are still struggling ten months after the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in September.
“In June, approximately 100 SUNY and CUNY students deployed to Puerto Rico where they repaired houses for residents. Led by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, the NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative launched following the destruction left behind by the hurricane. The goal of the initiative is to connect New York students with engaged nonprofit partners on the ground in Puerto Rican communities conducting recovery work, including debris removal, roof repair, and construction. Participating students receive three summer credits and a $500 stipend. In addition, housing, meals and arrangements are paid for by SUNY, as well as airfare from a New York City-area airport. UNICEF USA has committed $500,000 to support this effort.”
Lucas is earning his MBA through SUNY Poly’s online program, allowing him the flexibility to juggle both his studies and his service as an AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Leader in Austin, Texas. It has let him continue his work and travel while keeping up with the coursework needed to earn his degree. Since being in the program, he’s worked and studied between Upstate New York and Central Texas, and been able to travel to Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.
AmeriCorps is a voluntary civil society program engaging individuals in public service work with a goal of "helping others and meeting critical needs in the community."
“As a 26-year old, gaining international aptitudes are critical for advancing a career in a global business environment,” he says. “It has always been a goal to earn an MBA to help advance my career in the realm of business. Since taking undergraduate courses, I have had my eye on SUNY Poly’s master’s program. This is because courses at SUNY Poly combine business fundamentals, such as finance and marketing, with the management of technology. In the 21st Century, technology management constantly intersects with business management.”
Most companies in today’s modern world have technological elements to their operations, such as digital marketing, cybersecurity, and management information systems. With an MBA from SUNY Poly, Lucas hopes to be well prepared for the jobs of tomorrow, but it’s his current work in Puerto Rico that is allowing him to make a difference today.
While volunteering in Puerto Rico, work was conducted through a non-profit called Nechama – Jewish Response to Disaster, an organization founded on the Jewish principle of “Tikkun Olam,” meaning “repairing the world.”
“My family raised me Jewish with principles such as ‘Tzedakah’ meaning justice or righteousness. The connection of personal and professional values made participation in this service trip important to me. My career has been focused on applying my business education toward also helping make the world a better place. My goal has been to package service learning experiences to become a leader within industries such as public administration of nonprofit management.”
As reports about the magnitude of damage and deaths on the island continue to pour in, Lucas became even more motivated to step in and personally lend a hand.
“When [the governor] launched the SUNY Stands with Puerto Rico initiative, I felt a calling that stemmed from the governor’s leadership. As a result, I personally wanted to stand up for my fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and to volunteer where needed.”
The decision to go to Puerto Rico happened rather quickly, with logistics put together just a few weeks before leaving for the island.
“The frantic nature of preparing for the trip was a good learning experience. Disasters are unpredictable, and response can move at a very fast pace, with many moving pieces or stakeholders. Since the program was announced, each day we would receive messages about new contacts, changes in our itineraries, and updates in our service site locations. However, SUNY’s staff was very supportive in answering questions promptly to help navigate the required documentation for the project. It was important for me to work hard to ensure that my work schedule was cleared out before leaving so that I could dedicate these two weeks towards important service work in Puerto Rico.”
The timing, Lucas says, was appropriate against the backdrop of a summer course at SUNY Poly he was taking titled Multinational Economics of Technology, taught by Dr. Rafael Romero.
“While Puerto Rico is technically a territory of the United States, our volunteer group is learning about the island’s history, economics, infrastructure, and culture. Professor Romero has been extremely supportive in a goal to pursue an independent study to expand the service learning opportunity. Before leaving for Puerto Rico, our SUNY group was assigned readings and lectures to guide our experience. As a result, SUNY students are jointly learning while gaining practical experience based on the trip.”
While on the ground in Puerto Rico, Lucas says site supervisor Dr. Joanne O’Toole, a professor from SUNY Oswego, regularly hosted discussions for their group to reflect on their readings and observations, stressing the maintenance of intentionality while working in distressed communities. As SUNY students, Lucas says members of the group view themselves as ambassadors to the island, with their actions watched closely by many for the examples they set.
Through hot and humid conditions, Lucas and his team conducted manual labor – clearing old concrete and blacktop, filling in holes and cracks on roofs, and priming and sealing roofs, many of which had been severely damaged or were quickly deteriorating following the storm.
“A big challenge has been balancing the limited resources available, such as the appropriate tools for work sites. While UNICEF and others have been very generous in sponsoring our trip, donations are still needed. This is especially important as tools get damaged or need to be replaced,” he explains. “It is also difficult to see the devastation first-hand. So many buildings have been destroyed where only rubble remains. Many streetlights do not work, and electrical lines are down. It is tough hearing stories from residents about lost possessions and how many had to abandon their old homes.”
One story that sticks out to Lucas is of a homeowner brought to tears when the team completed her roof’s repair.
“She was so grateful for the SUNY students who took the time out of their busy summers to help her and her family. She followed up by cooking us all a great, home cooked Puerto Rican meal. It is uplifting how welcoming and receptive the Puerto Rican homeowners have been towards our help. Neighbors see SUNY students working on homes and ask us how they can sign up to get repairs completed as well. I believe that our group is providing local Puerto Ricans hope for a better tomorrow. It is heartwarming because above all else, trust is being built between residents of the mainland USA and residents of the Puerto Rican territory who often feels forgotten about.”
With so much work to be done in stifling temperatures, it can sometimes be a challenge to keep up one’s energy and spirits in order to help others, but Lucas says the key is being a member of the team. Volunteers come from different SUNY and CUNY schools across the state, each with a diverse background, different academic major, and possessing unique skillsets and distinctive stories. Despite the differences in where they may come from, they all share a common bond in the whirlwind process of getting themselves to Puerto Rico to make the same sacrifice, spending their summer serving others.
“My spirts are elevated when I think about our ability to come from different upbringings, heritages, and religions to work toward a common goal. Helping our fellow citizens is what being a New Yorker is all about.”
It’s that focus on the team, on others, all finding common ground despite where they come from, that drives Lucas to stress the bond we all share as human beings, and the need to help each other in times of crisis.
Many of the homeowners who were impacted by Hurricane Maria do not have the means to repair their homes individually. Many have left the island, and many others have lost jobs and can’t afford proper repairs. Still others have accepted living in subpar conditions with their neighborhoods left in ruins. Lucas says support is needed encourage locals that there is tremendous support coming from the mainland to conduct direct service.
“Puerto Rico is not alone in rebuilding efforts and there are emerging leaders from New York who are dedicating long hours toward a vision of a resilient Puerto Rico.”
And while there still remains much work to be done, Lucas’ team alone repaired roofs on roughly 3 homes. With similar groups of SUNY/CUNY volunteers on the ground, it means that 30 homes were addressed just in the two-week span Lucas and his team were on the island.
“The longer-term impact comes from the families that get assistance and can now live in safer conditions. Our service means the world to them. These residents are going to tell their local neighbors and friends about Nechama and SUNY students’ good work, which will enable the residents to feel more comfortable reaching out to seek assistance.”
Beyond that, there is an even larger impact, Lucas says, coming from the growth in awareness about the conditions of Puerto Rico and the efforts of “NY Stands with Puerto Rico” as more images, videos, and articles surface to tell the stories of the island, the responders, and help identify the appropriate resources that are needed.
“Fellow Americans should recognize that Puerto Rico is not just an island faraway or a vacation destination, but a place where many people are struggling, yet are welcoming, kind-hearted, and gracious for any support they can get. Hopefully, this SUNY cohort will generate insight that will build capacity for the next group of SUNY volunteers, so that they are better prepared to assist with long-term recovery efforts.”
Following his two weeks of service, Lucas and his group departed the island, with another SUNY volunteer group traveling to Puerto Rico to lend a hand after that. Other students will travel to the US Virgin Islands this summer. However, the work continues – both in Puerto Rico on the path to recovery, and in continued service by Lucas wherever he finds it is needed. It’s an experience that echoes the words of President John F. Kennedy, who originated the idea for AmeriCorps VISTA and famously stated, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
“This service learning experience in Puerto Rico has not only made me more aware of challenges that occur at the ground level during disaster recovery, but also how to be a more resilient individual that is able to work through difficult projects.”