Red Crosser delivers in Puerto Rico: “I wasn’t gonna let her down”

By National Capital Region, American Red Cross


“I was in Patron, Morovis, Puerto Rico and this little old lady comes up to me and starts patting me on the chest and talking in Spanish,” remembers John Hendricks, a Red Cross volunteer from Detroit, Michigan serving in Puerto Rico for the Hurricane Maria relief effort. His voice is raspy from camping out in the mountains with his Red Cross team delivering water filters to the most remote communities, house by house. “I said to her, ‘I’m a gringo, I don’t speak Spanish,’ but I got one of my teammates to translate for me.” John’s eyes get misty. His translator said, “She is patting your chest because she saw you in the mountains and she loves your heart.”

John was touched by Rosa Maldonado Ortiz’s gesture and, with translation assistance, learned more about her situation. At 87 years old, she lost part of her house during the hurricane. Three of her grandchildren live upstairs in her home. Like most homes on the highlands of Puerto Rico, there is no running water and families collect water from mountain springs. Mrs. Ortiz happily accepted a high-volume Sawyer water filter, one of 13,000 (and counting!) units Red Cross volunteers have placed into the hands of the most isolated Puerto Ricans. The training she received on its use will help her keep her family safe from bacteria, viruses and toxins. However, she desperately needed tarps to keep out the seasonal downpours, she told John. He promised to return.

When John went to the closest Red Cross warehouse, all the tarps had been distributed and the next shipment had not yet arrived. “I wasn’t gonna let her down, so I went to Home Depot and bought her tarps,” John says in his matter-of-fact, Middle America style. “When I took her the tarps, she told me she needed a cat.” Mrs. Ortiz was worried about the increasing number of rats, mice and the diseases they might transmit to her grandchildren. 

As it so happens, an abandoned kitten was rescued on a relief distribution in Juana Diaz during a thunderstorm. “We couldn’t leave the kitten there in a downpour, so we took it to a veterinarian,” said Leo Taraborrelli. “The vet estimated it was born about the time that Hurricane Irma came through.” When John told Leo about Mrs. Ortiz, he gladly offered up the rescued kitten to the cause. After all, as Red Cross volunteers, they have been working 15-hour days and are mostly away from their shelter. This way, the kitten would be in a home with children to love him.

Later that night, John and Leo made a special trip back to Patron, Morovis to Mrs. Ortiz’s home with the cat. “I’m so happy, thank you!” said Mrs. Ortiz. Red Cross responders, like John and Leo, continue their emergency relief efforts in Puerto Rico with a strong sense of urgency due to sustained damage to critical infrastructure like water and electricity. Red Cross teams continue distributing water filters in rural areas as a longer-term solution to the lack of access to clean water.