Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, including Fred Hiltner, far right, take a photo with a homeowner they were helping in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, including Fred Hiltner, far right, take a photo with a homeowner they were helping in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Strength and resilience: Juneau man travels to Puerto Rico to lend a hand

Puerto Rico still reeling from years of brutal disasters

Puerto Rico, an island commonwealth of the United States, has had a rough few years, slammed by earthquakes and hurricanes.

In the aftermath, people across the country and the world, including a Juneau man, have extended hands to help them through it.

“People from all over the world who cared enough to take time out of their lives to come down and help out,” said Fred Hiltner, a former teacher for the Juneau School District who’s traveling to Puerto Rico again to spend several weeks there volunteering with a nonprofit dedicated to helping areas afflicted by disasters called All Hands and Hearts. “I was amazed by how many young Europeans were there giving up their spring breaks from colleges.”

The organization brings volunteers from all over, and according to their website, is involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery operations in places including Texas, Nepal, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Mozambique and Peru. Hiltner said they do their best to work with the locals of a region to help them pick themselves back up. Hiltner was operating in Yabucoa, in southeastern Puerto Rico, for both his first trip in 2018 and his upcoming trip to the island.

Hurricane Maria was one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico in history. These ruins are near Yabucoa in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Hurricane Maria was one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico in history. These ruins are near Yabucoa in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

“The Puerto Rican people are so strong and amazing,” Hiltner said. “Some had lost their homes, or parts of their homes.”

Puerto Rico has been wracked by particularly savage hurricanes and earthquakes over the last four years, and disaster relief efforts have been hampered by limited federal aid and confusion about its implementation to the American commonwealth.

[Impounded vessel capsizes in Statter Harbor]

“We worked largely with people coming in and applying for help,” Hiltner said. “We sent out an assessment team to look at the damage, to make a plan for that particular residence.”

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, a charitable nonprofit, leave their hard hat labels in Puerto Rico following their volunteer work to assist with recovery from Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, a charitable nonprofit, leave their hard hat labels in Puerto Rico following their volunteer work to assist with recovery from Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Hiltner said a large part of the work they did was shoring up roofs and treating houses for mold that came with the damp from compromised roofs. Teams of six to eight would operate in shifts during the day, clearing trees, demolishing derelict homes, repairing roofs and clearing mold. They would sleep in bunk beds built on site in the abandoned school where they were operating out of.

“There were startling moments,” Hiltner said. “Driving down to Yabucoa, there was a house foundation with just a refrigerator and a stove. You can’t help but wonder if there was someone in the house when it happened.”

Hiltner said that he’d heard about the devastation in Puerto Rico on the radio and was moved by the accounts of it. He researched nonprofits working to help out, and settled on All Hands and Hearts.

“It’s a life-changing experience. I look forward to making that a common occurrence. It’s a different way to visit a country,” Hiltner said. “I have a place in my heart for it. There’s something special about going back there.”

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, a charitable nonprofit, help to clear some of the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Volunteers with All Hands and Hearts, a charitable nonprofit, help to clear some of the devastation in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in March 2018. (Courtesy Photo | Fred Hiltner)

Hiltner said that the strength and resilience of the Puerto Rican people stayed with him, and led him to volunteer again as he heads down once more. He told the story of a man who had come down to be with his grandmother through Hurricane Maria, and had his shoulder broken by the brutal storm winds.

“I had to change my (baseball) swing,” Hiltner said the man told him. “It’s broken, I’m just going to live with it. It’s like, OK, that’s the way life is, let’s keep going.”

Hiltner said that he looks forward to volunteering in other places, in addition to helping out here in Juneau.

“It’s an incredible experience and there’s a lot of opportunities worldwide and here in Juneau. I like the opportunity to volunteer here but also get out into the world and experience it in different ways,” Hiltner said. “I think it’s important to be a world citizen, especially these days, to understand different cultures as we move into the future.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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