(TNS) - A young girl's request for water was like a sword thrust to the heart during a recent walk through the mountain town of Casanovas during a recent mission trip to Puerto Rico.
The joyful response to a simple gift box of food and case of water was symbolic of the attitude of Puerto Ricans, who showed consistent humility and thankfulness during a trip to the island, where temperatures remained constant around 85 degrees in the heat of the day.
Dozens of families welcomed a mission trip earlier this month designed to help alleviate the suffering caused by Hurricane Maria, but the ongoing grinding poverty was one of the surprising aspects for those who experienced the trip first-hand.
I was one of 11 on the mission, which also included Jeff Albert, of Ashtabula, eight Detroit area residents and one from Virginia. The trip was coordinated by the Great Lakes Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church.
We spent eight days on the sunny island rebuilding two roofs, cleaning a church camp, building a cement wall, painting an apartment building and church and interacting with residents of numerous communities.
The hosts from Shining Bright International have been operating mission trips since September, when Hurricane Maria slammed into the island damaging infrastructure, destroying homes and forcing many to leave the island for refuge with family and friends on the mainland.
"It has been a reach to impact the entire island," said Humberto Pizarro, who helps coordinate the trips with a small team of tireless drivers, cooks and administrators. He is also a pastor at Connected Life Church in San Juan.
Pizarro said he has helped organize 51 mission trips to help the island get back on its feet. The task has provided physical, emotional and spiritual burdens to the workers.
"God has trusted us as stewards," Pizarro said. "It has been extremely taxing on us as individuals. We have been stretched."
Pizarro sees the weekly trips coming to an end in the near distant future, but turning around the devastating effects of the storm will take much longer.
"It will take years, maybe even a decade, to get back to normal," he said.
Pizarro said his church lost many families. Many will eventually come back, he said, but it will likely be a long process.
The groups that have volunteered their time and money to help rebuild Puerto Rico are greatly appreciated. Pizarro said the unity has been a great experience with people chipping in across denomination and racial lines.
The challenge for residents is to return to their lives but also stay engaged with those in need.
"The island has to turn back to normalcy but never forget," he said.
Power outages, emotional loss, lack of the basic necessities and other challenges make recovery difficult.
"You are pushing Puerto Rico into a Third World situation," he said.
Albert, who spent several weeks providing disaster relief in Houston after Hurricane Harvey pounded Texas in August, said he was surprised at the gratitude of the rural poor who seemed so thankful, while some in Texas were "looking for a handout."
The vast differences between San Juan, a sprawling city of more than 1.3 million people, and the rural areas were pronounced. Albert said he was surprised how many people live in San Juan.
"I was expecting more rural," he said.
We stayed at a church seminary dormitory with bunk beds, were fed wonderful home-cooked meals and developed strong relationships with the staff that worked tirelessly.
The opportunity to help meet the physical needs of the rural poor was balanced by the opportunity to share with 10th graders at a bilingual high school in San Juan. The school served a wealthier segment of the population and the students were dealing with many of the same difficulties facing mainland teenagers, including pressure from parents to make a career decision at a young age.
The devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has also had ripple effects here in Ashtabula County. Ashtabula Area City Schools Interim Superintendent Mark Potts said the district has experienced an increase of six to 12 students from Puerto Rico following the hurricane.
Two Lakeside High School graduates have also completed recent mission trips to Puerto Rico through H20 Church, which is based at the University of Akron where they are students.
Siblings Caleb Garcia, a 2014 LHS graduate, and Carolyn Garcia, a 2016 LHS graduate, went on a trip from March 24-30 and did a variety of tasks through the disaster relief agency "Send Relief."
Caleb Garcia said the 18 students were broken into teams of six people and were taken to various spots throughout the island.
"I did expect to see a lot more (direct) devastation," he said of downed trees and other physical destruction. What he didn't expect was the lack of supplies to meet people's needs.
"I expected people to have the basics by that point, but I found so many have been denied aid by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)," Caleb Garcia said.
He said he had rewarding conversations with island residents — many of whom just needed to tell their "stories" because nobody was listening.
Caleb Garcia is a junior electrical engineer technician major, but he also has interest in mission work.
"Even before (the trip), I thought I might be interested in mission work in the future and this trip reinforced it," he said.
Carolyn Garcia said she also enjoyed meeting the people of Puerto Rico and was shocked at their attitudes despite all they have suffered.
"They are still happy, joyful and hospitable," she said. "We were going house to house and offering people a water filter, food and a Bible with an insert from a local church."
The fight for the soul of the tiny island territory will be a long battle and, while the people seem ready for the struggle, they need more help.
Warren Dillaway is a staff photographer for the Star Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2018 the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio)
Visit the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio) at www.starbeacon.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.