How do you help a small poor town devastated by a powerful storm? How do you provide relief for families who lost almost everything during the storm? The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loiza, Puerto Rico, came up with a plan to assist hundreds of people soon after Hurricane Maria hit last September. The category 5 winds of the storm battered the entire island shutting down power and communication towers for days and weeks to follow.
After providing warm meals every day for hundreds of residents weeks after the hurricane, church members began to visit communities to find what the pressing needs were. They called these visits “days of hope” in communities where they assessed needs, distributed water and talked to folks, many elderly, single mothers, unemployed and those wondering how they could survive and rebuild their lives.
It was the perfect opportunity for the project Pastor Eduardo Mack and church members at the three Adventist Churches he pastors in Loiza, had envisioned to get started in 2018. Loiza is an impoverished town of about 28,000 residents some 30 minutes northeast of San Juan—the capital city.
“Through our visits in the community, we realized how much need there was, so we immediately started collecting clothes from our ADRA conference office and connected with the municipal office,” explained Mack.
Opening a center that could be a positive influence in the community was what they dreamed of but for now a place to provide goods for affected families was urgent.
“We met with the mayor of the town and found out there were 1,000 families who had lost everything so worked on a voucher system that these needy families could bring to the center to ‘buy’ items,” said Mack. Each person is given a $25 voucher and selects the equivalent of that amount of the items they need to purchase.
The clothing center is called “Otra Oportunidad”, or “Another Opportunity”, and has remained operating since it opened on Dec. 5th. Previously to the center opening church members volunteered to cleaned up homes for weeks after the storm.
The center saw 500 people come through its doors to obtain clothing items, toiletries and food during the first week of opening. “We saw about 100 people per every day, and today we have about 45 people visiting every day this month,” said Mack.
The center is run by church member volunteers who donate their time to sort out clothes and items and assist people who come in.
“The hurricane rushed things and God opened the doors for the ‘Another Opportunity’ to be possible so quickly and it’s been a real blessing in the community,” said Mack.
The mayor has been so grateful for the work that the Adventist Church has been doing in town because there was nothing in place to assist so many families.
Blessing the Community
“We are here to be a blessing to others, to bless the community, and that is what the center is all about,” explained Mack.
From using several units of the empty strip mall in town to donations coming from ADRA, the Greater New York Conference and the Coral Springs Adventist Church in Florida, Mack sees how much the center is becoming a greater influence in the community.
“This project has not only been good to the community but good to the 85 members in the three small Adventist churches in town,” said Mack.
Maria Cirino has been volunteering since the center opened. She grew up in Loiza and has been a Seventh-day Adventist since she was little and is a member of the Pueblo Adventist Church. Her responsibilities at her 14-member church include church secretary, Sabbath School secretary and deaconess director.
Volunteering for “Another Opportunity” has brought her joy and taught her to think of others in her community more. “I love to help and have learned every day here that there are so many people in need,” said Cirino.
Cirino’s daughter Jaqueline Perez came back with her family to live with her from Miami, Florida, after the hurricane hit to be with her mom. Perez is in charge of managing the floor at the center and previously worked at a discount clothing store in Miami where she sorted clothes and managed the floor.
“I decided to stay and look for a job but while I wait I decided to help in the center,” said Perez. “I used to be a loyal Seventh-day Adventist but left the church and now I’m back home discovering this wonderful project for the community.”
As of February, the center opens only Wednesday through Fridays, reported Mack. “Many have been able to get by with what they have obtained from the center and we are wanting to turn this project into a consistent center of influence here in Loiza,” he added.
Connecting Through Helping
Another Opportunity has let the community know who the Seventh-day Adventist Church is and how we care for others, said Mack.
“All our impact has been through connecting and helping others in the community, to let them see that we follow Jesus and His method of caring for those in need,” he said.
The plan is to offer candle making classes so single mothers can begin a small business selling homemade candles to support their families. Other planned community services include counseling, health education, and more, according to Mack.
In the coming days, the church, with the help of ADRA in Puerto Rico, is also helping to fix several homes of elderly residents.
“This is Gods’ love at work through us right here,” said Mack.
Plans are to look for a more permanent place that has with power so that they can bless and assist in rebuilding the lives of so many in the community.