One of the first sights as we exited Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was a highway exit sign folded in half—a stark reminder of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria that made landfall on the island on September 20, 2017.
Weaving through intersections without stoplights and down roads lined with fallen trees and power lines, we were struck by the hurricane’s raw power and lasting impact on Puerto Rico. “At night, the deafening hum of the generators rings throughout the island,” a hotel employee told us. “Without power at their homes, all of the kids are playing outside, so your timing couldn’t have been better.”
On December 17, a team of 9 employees from Brightspot and 3 mechanics from The Bike Lane in Reston, Virginia, landed in San Juan to build and distribute 50 bicycles to children in orphanages around the island. The 2-day trip continued Perfect Sense’s annual holiday tradition of providing bicycles to those in need. For the first time, however, Brightspot’s efforts extended outside of the DC area. Francisco Borelli, a software engineer whose family still lives on the island was the first to sign up.
“Obviously, as a Puerto Rican, I was eager to go in order to get a better idea of what my family was going through. I needed to see for myself how I could help during this difficult time and better understand how I could best impact the island in the future.”
Immediately after landing in San Juan, we began a marathon afternoon of assembling brand new Trek bicycles ranging from 12-inch tricycles for 3 year olds to 21-gear mountain bikes for young adults.
“The pile of boxes—stacked floor to ceiling—was pretty daunting when we arrived,” remarked Axel Tarnvik. “Working in teams of two and with Puerto Rican music filling the room, we slowly chipped away, and as we got the hang of it, really started cranking through them.”
As the hours wore on the pyramid of boxes we arrived to in the hotel slowly transformed into an imposing fleet of bicycles.
Monday morning, we loaded the bikes into 2 trucks and our convoy set out for what proved to be an emotional and life-changing day. Our first stop took us to Hogar Primeros Pasos, an orphanage located in Vega Alta, a small town an hour outside San Juan. Primeros Pasos houses 12 children ranging from 1 to 4 years old. During the drive across the island into a more remote area of the country, we saw the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. When we arrived at Primeros Pasos we first met with the incredible staff and volunteers caring for these children around the clock.
Puerto Rico Bike Build
“My first emotion when we arrived at Primeros Pasos was sadness. The children who were there because of abuse and neglect were so young,” shared Avery Davila. “That feeling soon gave way to hope, however, as I was awed by the hearts of the caregivers who had invested and sacrificed so much of their lives in caring for the well-being of these children. One caregiver told us that the woman who runs the orphanage hadn’t taken a day off in 2 years. It was eye-opening and tragic to see the suffering of the children, but equally as inspiring to see the goodness in those helping them.”
From Vega Alta, we traveled to Bayamón to visit Hogar Forjadores de Esperanza. Here we met 12 boys ranging from 5 to 21. During a tour of the orphanage we saw the impact of the hurricane. The roof, which had been blown off during the storm, was still covered with a blue tarp. One outer wall of the orphanage was missing and another had just been re-built a few weeks prior. Despite these challenges, the orphanage was still operational and providing love, care and a home for its children. As the kids began to trickle home from school, they joined Brightspot employees on the blacktop to shoot hoops and kick around the soccer ball. After all the kids had arrived back home, we surprised them with their new bicycles. Soon all 12 of them were riding in circles around the court with smiles spread across their faces.
"When we showed up at Esperanza, the youngest boy in the home, who was about 3 feet shorter than me, walked right up to me with a basketball and challenged me to a game," recalled Olu Akande. "For 10 minutes, we went back and forth laughing and playing. Afterward, all I could think about was how much he had been through in his life, being taken from his family and seeing his orphanage ripped apart by a hurricane. Yet, he was filled with so much joy and hope. I walked away feeling more inspired than I could have imagined."
Thanks to @PerfectSenseDig and #SunWestMortgage for helping the future of Puerto Rico 🇵🇷 and making a difference to these kids in my island 🌴— Ivan Pudge Rodriguez (@Pudge_Rodriguez) December 20, 2017
Bendiciones a todas las personas de #Perfectsensedig y #SunwestMortgage por ayudar al futuro de Puerto Rico! Feliz navidad 🎄 pic.twitter.com/6FIGSBnwNr
Our final stop was a few miles down the road at Institucion de Niños Andres, which currently houses a group of 20 boys between 5 and 13. Like Esperanza before it, the boys teemed with excitement as they received their bicycles. The older boys listened intently as they learned how to properly change gears. Then, despite a light rain, all 20 boys raced through the field, getting a feel for their new bikes.
After a whirlwind 30 hours on the island, our team headed to the airport with sore backs, full hearts, and the hope that our gifts will bring joy to an amazing group of children who opened our eyes and touched our lives. The project demonstrated Brightspot's ongoing commitment to making a difference by engaging its employees in concrete and meaningful ways to bring joy to the lives of others.