After settling back into the groove at UPS North Bay, local 315 member Tim Davenport reflects on his experiences volunteering in Puerto Rico, and the unyielding power of solidarity driven among people during devastation.
Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan was home to our Teamsters brothers and sisters, our siblings from over 20 unions, San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, her staff, and some 20 policemen. With an abundance of drivers and limited supplies, workers adjusted to the chaos and stuck to the schedule. Wake up time was 6AM, 7AM is dispatch, retire early at 9PM, but realistically, volunteers returned at 12AM or 1AM. Ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast, Vienna sausage and rice for dinner. Electricity was limited and showers were improvised with tents on platforms outside.
In what felt like a rainy, hot and humid, post-apocalyptic realm, the local community and volunteers worked collectively, becoming beacons for temporary redevelopment. Locals had no running water, so they propped up PVC pipes with fallen branches to divert streams of water through their makeshift faucet. Teamsters delivered supplies while also pulling tarps over roofless homes. Davenport’s group coordinator and Teamsters Joint Council 13’s Human Rights and Diversity Commissioner, Roy Gillespie, united Teamsters volunteers with the well-equipped Red Cross.
In order to leave the coliseum, volunteers must be escorted by policemen, for protection and to assist in navigation through traffic sans traffic lights, dodge fallen poles, zigzag around broken trees, and bypass loose electricity wires. In short, there was no straight shot to any towns.
In one delivery, a little box truck drove over unobserved wires, and all helping hands grabbed for branches and had to wedge the wires out of the wheel.
In all relief work, there is collective collaboration. And in these joint efforts, miraculous moments follow suit. Before dispatch with the Red Cross, Davenport with other Teamsters made stops at Caribbean Produce, 6 miles away. Caribbean Produce is the relief distribution center for supplies, including water, tents, snacks, flashlights, and you guessed it, adult diapers. While loading the truck, a forklift operator noticed a package of adult diapers drop, and involuntarily threw it into the truck.
Along their route, they visited an older woman who only spoke Spanish. No one understood Spanish as she kept asking for something, and finally they learned it was adult diapers. Davenport was in awe since he “didn’t even see baby diapers in donation piles down there. What are the chances?”
Davenport would often ride along with Teamsters Local 707 brother Josh Caskey, who, with other local unions, selflessly worked on an emergency project, which they took into their own hands. Caskey and team spent 4-5 days on a roof-less orphanage, spending their own money and taking trips to Home Depot for a temporary roof. Tim Davenport smiles ear to ear talking about collaborative efforts, but shifts to pensively admit, “it’s not enough. I am happy because now they have supplies, but it’s also sad because these supplies may last them a day and the tarps aren’t roofs.”
Roy Gillespie works with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters coordinating major disaster relief efforts. Gillespie has partnered with Red Cross for 2001’s 9/11 attacks and in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina. His advice on getting involved? “Go onto the [International Brotherhood of] Teamsters website, where we ask for volunteers, but locals first. Then we call on people with expertise for what specific help is needed. Teamsters always know what to do.”
“Trees here don’t shed leaves or get stripped by fall or winter. By the end of the trip, sprouts of new growth were everywhere,” recalls Davenport. Diminished flora and fauna started to reestablish itself, similar to the locals with help of relief work and their positive attitudes. Through the unimaginable destruction of the hurricanes, locals and their spirits weren’t weighed down. “They were extremely giving. Willing to even re-gift the water we gave them.” After the efforts made by Teamsters, various labor unions, and other volunteers to repair, Puerto Rico still needs our help. If you are interested in helping with the restoration of “La Casa De Todos” (“Everyone’s House”) orphanage, you may donate online here.
Special thanks to: Teamsters Joint Council 16, American Red Cross, Tim Davenport for his stories and photos, Roy Gillespie from Teamsters Joint Council 13, Josh Caskey and the Teamsters Local 707, all other labor unions who volunteered, the Police of Puerto Rico, United Airlines for donating their plane, and to the kind locals who were hospitable and caring to our volunteers.